Review: Xiaomi Mi3

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If someone had told me years back that Hugo Barra would leave Google to a Chinese mobile phone company called Xiaomi, I would have been highly sceptical of that, yet here we are in 2015, and Xiaomi is one of the most industry shaking companies out there. Aside from the OnePlus One, no other company out there is able to offer flagship level hardware and performance, together with a premium metal body in a price point below 249 USD, but Xiaomi has done just that. Not only that, they’re set to release the Mi4 later this year, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves; today’s article will be looking at its current flagship, the Mi3.
Xiaomi have started to expand beyond China, and as this article is being written, they already have a presence in Malaysia, Singapore, India, and a lot of other Asian countries. If Xiaomi stay true to their word, then as of next year, Xiaomi has plans on expanding to North America as well, but enough of the talk. Let’s find out if the Mi3 is really a phone worth getting if it’s already in your country, or a phone worth waiting or importing for if it hasn’t quite yet.

Unboxing


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Xiaomi has to be one of the more eco friendly phone manufacturers out there, as their boxes look to be made out of recycled cardboard, though that doesn’t mean that they’re flimsy and look terrible. On the contrary, there’s a lot of minimalistic beauty in them, and compared to a lot of other cardboard boxes out there, these are actually REALLY tough and dense, that you’d forget that they’re even made of cardboard. The box is so sturdy and secure that even trying to get it open was a chore, as they were so tightly packed, leaving me to have to try and shake the box, in order to loosen it and grip it before opening it altogether. Contents of the packaging are as follows:

  • Xiaomi Mi3 smartphone
  • Sim Tray Eject Pin
  • Instruction Manual
  • Micro USB to USB Cable
  • Service Card
  • Interchangeable Sim Card Tray (Full sized or Micro Sim)
  • 3x Screen Protectors (Matte)
  •  Xiaomi Flip Case
  • UK Head Wall Charger @ 5V, 1A

Packaging for the Mi3 is slightly odd, as it came in a large cardboard box that housed all the accessories, then in a smaller box within that box (i.e. the really tough dense cardboard box that was really hard to open), the actual Xiaomi Mi3 phone, the sim ejection pin, instruction manuals, and the Micro USB cable. Almost like box-ception if you will. Within the accessories box is where the packing wasn’t as tight, as things could easily fly around, but each of the individual accessories had their own respective boxes that were sealed, so there was no real chance of any of the components getting damaged either.

The bundled USB cable is of really build quality, and plugging it into the Mi3 was nice and solid and sturdy, and the same goes when putting it into the USB wall charger. It’s nice that Xiaomi bundled the phone with a 1A charger, though unlike the cable, I can’t really say that the charger shares the same feeling of high build quality. It feels a bit hollow, but it didn’t stop it from performing what it needed to do. The matte screen protector bundled looked great once applied, and was a cinch to put on as well.

The one thing that I’m used to seeing is kind of missing however that is bundled earphones with the phone. Perhaps not as important as many people do have their own headsets, and Xiaomi does sell their own premium earphones separately. Not a big deal for me, as I hardly touch them.

I like what Xiaomi is doing with more eco-friendly packagings, and while I generally don’t like the contents of boxes flying around, I’ll forgive Xiaomi in this one, as everything was individually packages, and the actual box itself for the phone was solid.

Moving on to the specs.

Specifications


 

  • OS: Android 4.4.2 KitKat
  • Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 Quad Core Krait 400 Cores @ 2.3 GHz
  • GPU: Adreno 330
  • RAM: 2GB
  • Internal Memory: 16GB
  • Camera: 13.1MP Rear Camera w/Dual LED Flash, 2.1MP Front Camera
  • Display: 5.0” IPS LCD Display @ 1920×1080 (441 ppi)
  • Connectivity:
    o   WiFi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac Dual Band
    o   Bluetooth 4.0
    o   A-GPS 
  • Battery: 3050mAh Non-Replaceable
  • Dimensions: 144mm x 73.6mm x 8.1mm
  • Weight: 145g

 

Walk around the device


 

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Picking up the device, you’ll notice that the whole body of the phone is unibody polycarbonate that is made to look aluminum, except the front, that has a black sheet of glass over it. Below the letters mi that is the logo for Xiaomi, you’ll find the 5” display that pushes out a beautiful 1920×1080. Being an IPS panel, colours are deep and vivid, viewing angles are great, and contrast ratios are great. In fact, the blacks are just a slight tinge shy of being pitch black, the same colours as its bezel. 441 ppi means that it’s superbly sharp as well, making it an absolute pleasure to look at.Above the display you’ll find a grill for the earpiece, the front facing 2.1 MP camera, the array of light sensors, and the notification light up the top right. Down the bottom, you’ll find the touch capacitive buttons, Option, Home, and Back respectively from left to right. They light up really well as well when touched, making them really easy to see in darker environments, and not only that they light up quite evenly, unlike some devices that can have rather patchy looking backlight on their touch capacitive buttons.

I’ll be the one to say that bezels on the Mi3 aren’t the smallest, as the side bezels are actually quite thick, but I don’t find it much of an issue. It’s not thick to the point that it becomes an eyesore, and the struggle to make the bezels as thin as possible is a superficial one in my opinion. Bezels that are too thin get in the way of usability and operation, and the Mi3 strikes a nice balance that make it comfortable to use and hold and operate it’s 5” touchscreen.


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In this respect, the Mi3 is quite minimalistic with the back. Seeing as it’s a unibody design, the back is left quite barren, except for the reflective mi logo down the bottom, together with some FCC markings, and the 13MP camera up the top, together with the dual LED flash beside it.

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The camera lens sits flush with the device, and I find that just a little bit concerning, as that would make it a lot more prone to getting scratched and scuffed.


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All the buttons on this phone are located on the right side of it, and that’s where you’ll find the volume rocker, together with the power button underneath it. Just like the body, both the volume rocker and the power button are both made with polycarbonate as well, and running my fingers along them , they wobble ever so slightly; not a big deal.The buttons protrude quite a bit of the body, making locating them just by feeling them a cinch. Pressing down on them feels really good as well, as you get quite a nice tactile feedback just by pressing on them, the kind of feedback that feels deep and solid, and not light and rattly.


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Top of the device is home to the 3.5mm headphone jack, the sim tray that you can access by ejecting it using a pin, and the secondary microphone that works as noise cancellation.The headphone jack was another pleasant surprise, in that it was extremely tight and solid, with almost no leeway or wobble. In fact, pulling the jack out even took a little bit more force; it was THAT tight into place, and this isn’t a bad thing at all.


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Flipping the device around, you’ll find the micro USB port, and a long perforated grill for the speaker to which I assume the primary microphone is under as well. Plugging in cables into the micro USB port, has a nice satisfying click to them and the port is quite tight and sturdy.Overall, in the aesthetics department, the phone’s outlook betrays its price tag. It doesn’t look or feel like a device that comes in at sub 249 USD, as the full polycarbonate body feels great in the hand, buttons feel well constructed and are pleasant to hold and the screen looks beautiful with really vivid colours and viewing angles. I’m not sure how Xiaomi managed to accomplish this, but they did a really good job with the Mi3, especially considering its asking price.

 


Hands On and Benchmarks


Starting up the Mi3 from a cold boot, all you see is the mi logo, together with the URL to the Xiaomi homepage. There’s no fancy animations of the sort, and the only indication that you get that the device is booting up is the mi logo that slowly turns orange from a shade of grey. There isn’t any boot sounds either. Very minimalistic.

The phone took 29 seconds to boot up to the lockscreen.

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I really like the lockscreen on the mi3. I find that it looks really sleek, minimalistic and pretty, and the lockscreen mechanism isn’t overly flashy either. Similar to stock android, there is a circular unlock ring, that when tapping and holding onto, expands into a larger circle with 4 points on each side respectively, that allows you to unlock into the corresponding app should you place the ring on them.

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There’s the option to unlock into the camera up to, the left to dialer, right to messaging, and bottom to unlock the device to whatever you left it at.

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Another feature is that should you double tap on the center of the ring, the lockscreen options change into the music control options, giving you the ability to play your music directly from the lockscreen and move between previous and next tracks. The wallpaper also changes into the cover art for the particular track that you’re playing, should it have one.

Operation wise, the lockscreeen doesn’t show any signs of slowdown or lag, so that’s always nice to see, but it should be expected of course, since it runs on a Snapdragon 800. Any lags in the interface here would be something severely wrong.

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The Xiaomi Mi3 runs on their own home grown MIUI software, so if you’re looking for the app drawer, you’ll find none here. At time of review, the unit that I have runs on MIUI v5, though they’re slated to release MIUI V6 for this phone and many of their lineups in the near future.

Skinning of the icons have a clean look, as they all follow the theme of having round edges, with a gradient transition background, together with simple shapes to represent their corresponding applications that give it a clean, easy to understand UI. Aside from the MIUI standards, like its own Weather, Calendar, Browser, and Music app, it doesn’t come with any other third party applications pre-installed, though since this is an international model, you DO find that it comes with Play Store installed.

Organisation and usage of the home screen is really intuitive and simple as dragging icons onto one another creates a folder, where you can drag and drop more applications into the folder and rename it. Dragging icons around automatically moves and rearranges the rest in a nice fluid animation, and to uninstall an application, just drag it to the top of the screen after a long press, and you’ll be given a prompt as to whether you do want to uninstall the application or not.

Pinching on the screen or long pressing on an empty spot brings you to the same option of being able to edit the home screens by adding more pages, as well as editing themes for widgets like the clock from MIUI’s extensive list of custom clockfaces from their market. In this mode of things, you can organize applications even easier, using the Move Apps option, add more widgets, change the wallpaper or change the transition effect between pages. Pressing on the options key allows you to access even more settings, like Preview Home Screens, that allow you to rearrange the screens in any order that you wish, and to set the main home screen, and Launcher settings allows you to set even more advanced settings.

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Pulling down on the notification bar shows you a list of your pending notifications, and shows you your data usage as well down the bottom. Swiping to the right, or tapping on the Toggles tab down the bottom brings you to the toggles page that similar to Android post Jellybean, allows you to quickly enable and disable options in your phone, and long pressing on any given icon brings you to their respective advanced settings. You can also customise the arrangements of these icons in the More button, where you can add and remove toggles, though you’re only allowed a maximum of 11 to display at any given time. You can even change the layout and settings within this page if you tap on the Notifications settings button in this page. Back to the Toggles pulldown menu, you do get the option to set the display brightness here as well and there is a shortcut directly to the options page on the top right. It should also be noted that if you have no pending notifications, you will be brought straight to the Toggles page instead.

Heading into the settings page, options are divided into two columns, where the more frequently accessed options are under the Quick Settings tab, and a full list of options are available in the General Settings tab.

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The only version available for the Mi3 currently in Malaysia is the one with 16GB of internal storage, that is non-expandable, so heading into the storage options, I found that I had 13.39 GB to play with. After installing all my benchmarking applications, I was still left with 11GB of storage, so that’s quite nice, though it would be nicer if I had the option to put in an additional MicroSD card, as I do not really like putting in my music collection into the phone itself, not that I could anyway, as just a single genre of my music is already up to 20GB. For most people, I don’t think that 16GB will really be a problem, but for those who like to pack their phones laden full of media, surely they’ll find something to be disappointed about with the 16GB of internal storage.

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Above is the spec printout of the phone based on the Antutu Device info section.

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Due to Antutu moving to v5, and a newer testing system, older results are no longer relevant and so they have been flushed out from the benchmark results.

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Pretty much all the newer flagship devices max out 3dMark’s Ice Storm and Ice Storm Extreme, so the only result available to show is from the Ice Storm Unlimited test, in which it scored a 17682.

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The Mi3 handled Epic Citadel without any hiccups, getting an average of 57.6 FPS on High Quality, and 53.1 on Ultra High Quality.

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A new benchmark to my slew of benchmarks, GFX Bench. You can see how the Mi3 stacks up against the competition.

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The Mi3 is capable of registering up to 10 individual touches at the same time, though I should note that I encountered quite a few detection problems as soon as more fingers got onto the screen.

Sound, Speakers and Media Playback


 

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Call quality is good on the Mi3. The earpiece is loud and clear, allowing me to hear the other party very clearly even if their microphone is soft, though I have to say that the microphone on the Mi3 could be a bit more sensitive, as it was softer than I would have liked it to be.

The loudspeaker on the Mi3, while you shouldn’t have difficulty hearing, isn’t really the loudest in the bunch. Playing back music on the loudspeaker, they lack a bit of bass, but overall don’t sound too bad.

Vibration strength isn’t too bad. Again, not really the strongest in the bunch, but should you have it near you or in a pocket on silent mode, you shouldn’t have problems feeling it vibrate should you get incoming calls or notifications.

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Testing out the audio quality of the Mi3, I hooked in my Koss KSC-75s, one of the highly rated earphones out there. Playing back Ferry Corsten’s Hyper Love, I found that highs could have been a little bit sharper though, lows were not overly powering, and actually quite neutral which I quite liked, and mids though sometimes seem just a bit lost in between the trebles and bass, leaving it not quite as pronounced as I would like it. It’s still good for normal listening, though those with picky ears may find issue with it. Playing back Sunlounger’s White Sand (Chillout Mix) is where things got a lot more apparent, as I found myself having difficulties hearing the sound of the crashing waves in the background over the sound of the bass guitar and the guitar.

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The default media player managed to handle the copy of The Thing  2011, that was encoded in H264 with an average bitrate of 2,032 kbps in 1080p and AAC encoded audio in an MKV container. There wasn’t any lag at all in playback, as playback was nice and smooth, but as much has to be expected with playback aided by a Snapdragon 800 processor of course. The default media player was unable to playback the embedded subtitles.

Camera, Photo Quality & Video Recordings


 

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Launching the camera app on the Mi3, icons are quite minimalistic, and circular. Starting from the top left, there’s the button to swap to the front facing 2.1 MP camera, a slider to change from Camera mode to Video mode, and to toggle the flash from No Flash, Flash or Auto Flash. On the right, there’s the options button that allows you to choose more advanced shooting modes, the large shutter button, and the shortcut to the gallery.

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Tapping on the options button gives you the option to throw on filters, do photos with voice recordings, take panoramas and enable HDR, but heading into Settings and disabling Simple Mode is where the magic starts to happen.

Turning Simple Mode off, aside from the aforementioned functions above, you get additional quick settings like Hand-held Twilight Mode, Focus mode that witches between Auto, Macro and Manual (Yes, you can manually set your focal point), Exposure that allows you to set  your photos to be brighter or darker, White Balance that allows you to select between Auto or different white balance presets, or even Manual White Balancing that allows you to move in between 8000K and 2000K, and perhaps the one I find most interesting, Manual Exposure mode, that allows you to disable Auto ISO and AUTO Shutter speed, and allow you to play with both the shutter speed and ISO independently, allowing you to take some pretty interesting shots, especially with these many settings open akin to a DSLR.

Pressing on the Advanced button brings up a menu with three tabs. The first tab that deals with universal settings, allows you to set things like enabling GPS location, the exposure, colour offset, range mode, white balance, storage location, Image properties and anti-shake. Going into camera options allows you to enable Zero Shutter Delay, Face Detection, Self timer, resetting the capture number, setting the picture size, and the ISO options. Heading into the Video Tab, you get the option to enable or disable GPS, microphone recording for videos, Audio Mode, set up a time lapse interval, show the level line, and set the video quality. Quite a few options to play with.

Further heading into the Settings option from there allows you to choose your Picture Size that ranges from 0.8M to 13MP with an indication of the resolution beside it, a touch that I very much like. You can change the picture quality from Low to High, Store Location info, set what the volume buttons do, or if you hold down the shutter button, add in reference lines, enable or disable camera sounds, Scan QR codes with it and even add time watermarks like older photos. Aside from that, you get to control Exposure settings, Anti-Banding, Contrast, Saturation, Sharpness as well as Face Detection.

Switching into video recording, brings its own set of settings, like filters, white balance (no manual this time), video recording quality (1080p Full HD, 720p HD or 480p SD) along with an option to do time lapse videos. Heading into Settings, you can enable photo taking while in video mode, Camera sounds, image stabiliser, set what the volume buttons do, as well as focusing mode, and time lapse interval.

Without trying to push it up too high, I can easily say that the Mi3 has the most versatile Camera of all the phones that I’ve tried to date, but of course, settings are only half the story. It doesn’t stop there.

I’ll start by saying that I believe that out of all the devices that I’ve tested, the Xiaomi Mi3, has come out the top of all of them, even my personal device, the Galaxy Note 3, in delivering really stunning images with good colours, clarity, and just a thrill to look at. I believe that it’s because of the marriage of the Sony Exmor RS 28mm f/2.2 sensor together with the ability to just tune almost everything to the user’s preference that makes the camera just so formidable. I’ll start off by saying that while taking photos in pure Auto mode might come out average to good, it’s the tampering with the advanced settings and modes that really make it shine.

The amount of detail retention that you get is quite amazing, noise levels are kept under control, there’s no real sign of oversharpening taking place, and colours look great for the most part. Switching on HDR mode, while in some scenes may come off as overly vibrant, in others, they allow you to really capture some really stunning images as they really bring the scene to life. The ability to manually control your while balancing, exposure and ISO values allow you take some pretty nifty night shots as well, all without the noise if done correctly. Bokeh is probably one of the things where I can be a bit picky with even though the camera is already quite stunning as the bokeh shape just looks a little all over the place, but even then it’s something that can be easily overlooked. Even taking a night shot in HDR mode isn’t really a problem as the phone handles almost everything I throw at it so well. Feel free to check out the Gallery to see for yourselves.

Switching the slider from Photo to Video moves you into video recording mode. You’re able to take photos during video recording as well, provided you turn on the setting in the Settings menu. Tapping on the screen shifts the focus of the camera while taking a videoUnlike my love for the still image quality, the video quality is a complete letdown. I found colours to be quite washed out, even at 1080p recording, the videos lacked sharpness, and honestly the audio record quality was a total mess and all over the place. It really is a shape seeing as the camera does so well in still photos, but with videos it’s just terrible.

 

Connectivity


 

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The Mi3 was one of the top performers when it came to WiFi connectivity, scoring a -44db at 5m away from the access point, only second to the FonePad 7. At 25m, it got -72, making it 3rd in the list.GSM signal strength is nice and strong, so no problems there.

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GPS lock for the Mi3 took some time. I only managed to get my first lock after 38 seconds, and that’s really long in comparison to a lot of devices I’ve tested. After leaving it for some time, the GPS came to an accuracy of 10 meters, again, a far cry from the results that most other devices that I’ve tested attained, and this is in an area where the density of users is quite low.

Battery Life


 

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I ran some applications, collected their battery usage, and based on that, extrapolated the results to bring you these estimates on battery life:- 8 hours 45 minutes of video playback
  • 9 days 1 hour 20 minutes of pure standby (GSM, Wifi)
  • 1 day 21 hours 15 minutes of normal usage
Runtime for the Mi3 is excellent, as I found that it could easily last close to 2 days with light usage, something that pleased me quite well. It also got one of the highest scores when it came to video playback, lasting a good 8 hours and 45 minutes, a respectable number indeed. We could probably either chalk this up to the Snapdragon 800 inside or perhaps the amount of optimisation that the MIUI software has gotten over the past years.

Conclusion


I’m not sure if there’s really much to dislike about the Mi3. The sleek slim polycarbonate body that has an aluminium look and feel reminiscent of the Lumia series is kind of a hit and miss with people, whether you like understated minimalistic looks or not, then there’s the thing about MIUI, which not many people like, and some even see it as a pure iOS clone, and while in many ways, while it IS heavy inspired by iOS, should you choose to look past this factor, you find many things that do set it apart from iOS, bringing its own flair of design and features to Android that actually makes it quite pleasant to operate. While I’m not a total fan of MIUI, I will have to say that it’s a very competent version of Android.There’s then the matter of its performance, and how there’s just not a lot of noticeable slack in it, whether you’re moving through apps, playing games, surfing or chatting, or maybe even taking photos, because as you may gather from the above I really like the camera on the Mi3. Given the asking price of sub 249, I will again state that there’s not a lot to hate of this phone, as all shortcomings are instantly forgiven by the price tag.

I definitely think that Xiaomi is on the right track with these devices, and if the Mi3 is any indication then, it’s every reason to be excited for the Mi4.

 

Pros

  • Price point at 249 USD
  • Great looking 1080p display
  • Lagless operation due to the combination of the Snapdragon 800 and MIUI
  • Camera can really blow you away should you decide to move away from Auto
  • Polycarbonate Unibody looks and feels premium and sturdy
  • Buttons and overall placement feels unlike a phone at this price range
  • Long battery life
  • Great connectivity strength
  • Frequent updates

Cons

  • 16gb Internal Storage a bit too little, and also non expandable
  • Video record quality just a bit disappointing
  • Longer than usual GPS lock
  • Audio not really audiophile level (small con)

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  • hamsteyr

    Probably the best phone for the money!