Review: Xiaomi Redmi Note

RedmiNote-01

Yet another day, yet another interesting piece of news on Xiaomi. Recent reports come in showing that Xiaomi just became the 3rd largest phone manufacturer in the world only behind Apple and Samsung, which probably has a lot to do with their performance in Asia, with China more than likely playing a big role in this. They’re doing quite well here in Malaysia as well, as many big name performers have been forced to take action against Xiaomi, with Asus making their line of phones more affordable (Padfone S for 275 USD?!) and other companies like Samsung dropping their prices to be more competitive as a stopgap while they churn out their Galaxy A-Series.

It probably then comes to no surprise then that the next phone that landed on my desk is another Xiaomi, though this time a large phone, the largest Xiaomi phone that I’m reviewing so far. It directly targets the phablet market as an affordable offering, so without further ado, let’s see what the Xiaomi Redmi Note offers you as an experience at RM509 (155 USD).

Unboxing


RedmiNote-02
The packaging on the Redmi Note isn’t that much different at all from the previous Xiaomi devices that I’ve reviewed. It comes in a tough and robust cardboard box with the Mi Branding on it, with the charger of the phone sitting separately in its own box while the phone and its other accessories sit in another more secure box.

Without saying too much I’ve already said, I like the way Xiaomi packages their devices, in that they’re more eco-friendly. They may not come with the same amount of flair or wow-factor as say OnePlus devices, but they’re certainly more responsible in that sense. Probably the only thing that I don’t really like by now is even though I know that the phone and its contents won’t get damaged, there’s a good amount of rattle that you get if you shake the box around.

Prying open the box you’ll find:

  • Xiaomi Redmi Note Smartphone
  • Instruction Manual
  • Micro USB to USB Cable
  • 3200mAh Xiaomi Battery
  • USB Wall Charger that is rated at 5v, 1A

As some accessories are the same as the ones packaged with the Mi3, I will borrow information from an earlier review to describe them.

The bundled USB cable is of really build quality, and plugging it in was nice, 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 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.

Onto the Red Giant that is, the Redmi Note.

Specifications


  • OS: Android 4.2.2 Jellybean
  • Processor: Mediatek MT6592 w/ 8 Cortex A7 Cores @ 1.7GHz
  • GPU: Mali 450 MP4
  • RAM: 2GB
  • Internal Memory: 8GB Expandable via MicroSD
  • Camera: 13MP f/2.2 Rear Camera w/ LED Flash, 5MP Front Camera
  • Display:5” IPS LCD Display @ 1280×720 (267 ppi)
  • Connectivity:
    • 2G – GSM 900/ 1800/ 1900
    • 3G – HSDPA 900/ 2100
    • Dual Sim
    • WiFi 802.11 b/g/n Bluetooth 4.0
  • Battery: 3200mAh Removable
  • Dimensions: 154mm x 78.7mm x 9.5mm
  • Weight: 199g

Walk around the device


RedmiNote-03Up front, you’re looking at the 5.5” IPS LCD Display that has a 1280×720 resolution. While it doesn’t have the highest pixel density out there, I think that it’s plenty sufficient as the pixels aren’t particularly visible, though you’ll notice the lack of clarity and sharpness next to displays with higher PPIs. Colours look nice and punchy with no sign of the gap between the display and the front glass which was an issue on the Redmi 1s, so this is a good thing. The IPS alongside this helped it attain some pretty decent viewing angles when used outdoors.

RedmiNote-04Below the display you’ll find the three capacitive keys that are backlit red and light up quite brightly when touched, which is something I’m very happy to see given my last reviewed Xiaomi didn’t have backlit capacitive keys.

Finally, adjourning the top of the display is the 5MP front facing camera, the earpiece, the notification light and the array of light and ambient sensors.

RedmiNote-05The rear of the phone has a glossy white finish that I can’t find myself liking very much. It catches quite a bit of fingerprints as well due to this glossy nature.

RedmiNote-06Above is the 13MP Camera with a single LED flash below it, and down bottom is the Mi branding in a silver finish and the speaker grill to the bottom left of that. The rear shell is removable and replaceable for different colour options other than white, and it also gives you access to the MicroSD Slot, the two Sim slots, and the battery compartment. It should be noted that only one Sim slot is 3G capable whereas the other will only run on 2G.

RedmiNote-07Much like the Redmi 1s, all buttons on the phone can be found on the right edge, in this case the power button and the volume rocker. They’re both made out of plastic with a silver finish, protrude quite a bit of the phone making it easy to locate and have decent tactile response to them, though perhaps not quite as solid as I would have liked it.

One should probably watch out for the paintjob on these buttons as I could very much see them peeling off over time to reveal the plastic underneath.

RedmiNote-08Up top the 3.5mm headphone jack that is decently solid, and one of the noise cancelling microphones.

RedmiNote-09Finally, down bottom, the micro USB port and the primary microphone for calls. The MicroUSB port is alright, as while not being the sturdiest one out there, I do get quite a comforting amount of solid snapping in when hooking in the USB cable.

To wrap up conclusions on the outer body, I have to say that the Redmi Note is a big phone. While its body is supposed to be slimmer than that of the Galaxy note 2, I found the phone a little bit more difficult to hold on to, and I think that has a lot to do with the shape of the phone and its ergonomics. Many times I got quite a bit paranoid holding the phone as I feel it wasn’t as balanced in my hands and didn’t feel as secure even though I’m used to holding larger devices. The glossy finish on the back doesn’t quite help with this either.

In terms of design, the phone doesn’t stray far from the Redmi 1s. I don’t find it to be the most beautiful design, as the bezels for the front can be quite thick, and while one could say that it looks simple and minimalistic, another could say that it looks quite boring and uninspired. Because of this I’m about 50/50 with the design, though at least it has a nice looking display up front to back it up.

As they say though, beauty is only skin deep, so let’s move on to its “personality”.

Hands on and Benchmarks



Powering on the phone, there’s the Mi Logo with the “Powered by Android” text below that that is becoming quite common these days. There’s no boot animation whatsoever or boot up sounds, and maybe I have something against this as well, as it was difficult to tell if the phone had frozen upon boot up or was still starting up, given that it took a good 58 seconds to boot into the lockscreen, the longest that I’ve ever recorded on a phone.

As this phone runs on MIUI, some of the information below will be identical to past reviews on MIUI devices.

RedmiNote-Lockscreen

The locksreen on the Redmi Note is identical to the Redmi 1s in that it looks more akin to the older versions of MIUI v5, and by that I mean that it does look slightly more dated in the design department. Most notably the UI elements look thicker and bolder in comparison to the newer versions. Holding on the circular unlock ring, you get the option to swipe into 4 directions to unlock the phone into the respective function.

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.

Nothing new now, but another hidden feature is double tapping on the center of the ring, that changes the lockscreen controls to music controls instead, allowing you to instantly play music on your device. The background changes to the cover art should the music file have one, or stylised purple lines should it not.

Probably due to the octa-core processor underneath it, lockscreen is lag free, so that’s a good start as far as user experience goes.

RedmiNote-Homescreen

The Redmi Note 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.

RedmiNote-Notification

Pulling down on the notification bar shows you a list of your pending notifications and 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 on your phone, and long pressing on any given icon brings you to their respective advanced settings. You can also customise the arrangement 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.

RedmiNote-Storage

The Redmi Note only comes with 8 GB of internal storage, but the good news is of course, that it’s expandable. Right out of the box you’ll have 5.01 GB available for your consumption, though if you are the kind to store a lot of games, music and photos in your phone, you’re probably going to want to install a MicroSD card into the phone sooner rather than later.

RedmiNote-Antutu

While not the highest in the group, it’s not really a slouch either. The MT6592 inside gives the Redmi Note a respectable score of 32540 due to the Cortex A7 octa core processing prowess.

RedmiNote-3dMark

While the Quad Mali 450’s are no match for the Adreno 330 in the Snapdragon 800 and 801 chips, it does show that it’s ahead of the Adreno 305 found in Snapdragon 400’s and even faster than the PowerVR SGX 543. This makes the MT6589 in the Redmi Note possibly one of the best budget SoCs to date.

RedmiNote-Epic

Surprisingly the Redmi Note wasn’t able to run Ultra High Quality, so I only managed to run High Quality, in which it managed to get a very good 57.6fps, albeit running at 1280×720.

RedmiNote-GFXBench

GFX Bench again shows once again that the Mali 450 MP4 pulls ahead of the budget competition making it one of the better budget GPU’s now.

RedmiNote-Touch

I was able to register 10 touches simultaneously without any issues.

Sound, Speakers and Media Playback


Call quality is good with the earpiece being quite loud making it easy to hear the person on the other end. Microphone picks up audio quite well as well, so I have absolutely no complaints about this.

Loud speaker on the Redmi Note is alright. It sits in the middle of the pack as far as being able to be heard, so you should have no problems hearing that next notification as it comes in. The vibration motor is slightly below average by my subjective tests, as there were times where I found it difficult to feel the phone vibrating in my pocket when it was on silent mode.

RedmiNote-Music

For my subjective music listening tests, I hooked the Redmi Note to my new pair of cans, the Denon AH-D1100.

The first track that I fired up was Kyau & Albert’s Down and after a while of listening, I found the output to sound just a little bit flat. The highs seemed to be lacking that clarity that I’m looking for and after a while I noticed that it sounded just a little bit mashed together with the mids which was quite disappointing.

Onto the next track, Hystereo by Armin van Buuren. Issues with the audio output continue to show themselves a little here as I found the bass output to be a bit odd. At time it could sound just a little bit flat where as in others it just sounds lazy. The high end portion of the song sounded quite muffled as well, and again, quite mashed together with the mids.

Finally, the last song that I used to test the audio output was the more instrumental Finca (Chill Out Mix) by Sunlounger. The issues with the highs make themselves a lot more apparent here as there just isn’t that sharp clarity that I’m looking for, and ends up sounding quite muffled and flat, with the subtle bass notes in the track missing altogether as well.

With the stellar audio quality of the Redmi 1s I can’t help but feel disappointed.

RedmiNote-MediaPlayback

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. The default media player was unable to playback the embedded subtitles.

Camera, Photo Quality & Video Recordings


RedmiNote-CamUI

Launching the camera app, icons are quite minimalistic, and circular. Starting from the top left, there’s the button to swap to the front facing 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.

RedmiNote-CamAdv

Tapping on the options button gives you the option to throw on filters, do photos with voice recordings, take panoramas, hand-held twilight shots and enable HDR. I tried to find the same extensive settings from disabling Simple Mode that I found on the Mi3, but sadly I didn’t find any.

Disabling Simple Mode gave me only a handful of other extra’s like focus mode (Auto or Macro), settings the ISO, adjusting the exposure compensation and adjusting the white balance. No sign of the Manual mode that allows me to fully set the exposure length of the sensor here, and to me, that came as quite a bit disappointment, seeing as how I really loved it on the Mi3. There’s no sign of being able to manually set the white balance in kelvins as well, so that’s a bit of a bummer.

Other settings within Settings (inception) is the ability to change your picture size, set picture quality (read compression and file size), 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, or scan QR codes. Aside from that, you get to control auto 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, 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.

So far from described, it sounds like it’s a trimmed down version of the camera from the Mi3. Now let’s see if the photo quality can hold its own as well.

Before getting started with the photo quality, I will mention that it is important to note that when using the camera, regardless of lighting conditions, there was quite a noticeable delay in between pressing the shutter button and the actual photo being taken. This issue persisted in every shooting mode I used, and so I am more inclined to believe that it is very much a software issue perhaps but I can’t be entirely slow.

Photos taken came out just a little bit underexposed on the normal settings. Still, there was a good amount of resolved detail from the 13 MP snapper, and the noise levels were controlled quite well. The bokeh wasn’t really the prettiest to be honest, but colours did turn out pretty good and vibrant. The camera didn’t have much issues getting the white balance right either, making it quite a pleasing experience.

I can’t say that I like the HDR mode in the phone very much however, as while the auto mode had the tendency to leave my photos just a little bit underexposed, the HDR mode went all the way around and photos were a lot more overexposed than I would have liked them. The of the slow shutter comes back again strangely even in well-lit conditions for HDR, as the two photos needed to create the HDR shot were taken in quite long intervals, making the photos come out really blurry unless you have a very steady hand. Because of the performance of the HDR and the software flaws noticed when taking the photos, I am absolutely unimpressed with the performance of this mode, and would highly recommend just leaving it turned off.

In low light photography, we start to see the camera suffer a little as noise levels start to get higher, the photo looking a tad underexposed, and colours start to look a little bit more muted while looking just a little bit colder as well. Turning on the flash didn’t help anything either, as it was too strong, massively overexposing my subject with background losing a lot of detail in the process. Using HDR wasn’t too bad in the case of indoor photos, as photos came out a lot more evenly exposed, though still looking a bit colder than it should be. Noise levels isn’t that much higher either, so if you are capable of staying still for a longer extent of time, it could be a good alternative.

Shooting in complete darkness is probably the biggest weakness of the Xiaomi Redmi Note. Regardless of shooting mode chosen, the results came out lacklustre. Neither Auto, Handheld-Twilight nor HDR gave me results that were pleasing, so I’m quite disappointed again with the performance of the camera here, as even the cheaper Redmi 1s did better in Night photography.

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 video

Video recording honestly wasn’t too bad. I found the colours to be quite decently vibrant, and video quality was quite nice and sharp, with quite a bit of detail retention. The high bitrate of close to 17k meant as well that the camera didn’t have much problems dealing with a lot of movement and changing details, so I’m pleasantly surprised with this. The only thing that I would reprimand then would be the audio quality of the recordings, which sounded just a little bit muffled for my liking.

Connectivity


RedmiNote-Signal

In terms of WiFi signal strength, the Redmi Note came out in the middle of the pack.

The same could be said about GSM signal strengths as well, as it sat right in the middle.

RedmiNote-GPS

The phone got a lock on quickly at 7 seconds, and after a while of settling down, came to an accuracy of 2 meters. Quite impressive indeed.

Battery Life


RedmiNote-Battery

I ran some applications, collected their battery usage, and based on that, extrapolated the results to bring you these estimates on battery life:

– 9 hours of video playback
– 13 days 21 hours pure standby (GSM, Wifi)
– 1 days 7 hours 45 minutes of normal usage

Note: I updated the calculation for normal usage to give a better true to life indication of battery usage.

The power saving cortex A7 cores show their worth here, as the Redmi Note got one of the highest standby times I’ve ever recorded, overtaking the OnePlus One as the longest lasting phablet smartphone on standby. While the non-stop video playback wasn’t the highest in the group, it was still very impressive however at 9 hours. This score makes the Redmi Note the 3rd longest result ever recorded for non-stop video playback.

What this boils down to is a phone that should last you more than a day easily with normal usage, which is very good in my books, as even if you decide to push your phone a lot more for that day itself, you should have plenty of battery left to last you till the end of the day.

Conclusion


I was a bit disappointed with the Redmi 1s. I went into the Redmi Note thinking that it would almost be the same case with this phone, but Xiaomi has proven me wrong and baffled me at the same time. For everything that the Xiaomi Note gets right I wonder why it wasn’t implemented on the 1s.

Getting back on topic, the Note itself is setting itself out to be a reliable daily driver for those looking for a larger form factor for their phones without breaking the bank. It won’t turn heads either, but for those getting this phone, that’s probably the last thing that they’re thinking about. For a budget phone, it’s got a good 5.5” IPS Display, that while isn’t really up to par with the flagships, isn’t disappointing either; one can live without a 1080p or 1440p display easily. The camera performs admirably in daylight shots, though you probably shouldn’t get your hopes up too high as things get dark, and its performance while not a trailblazer, is capable of holding its own, while giving you good battery life at it. Probably the only issues then I have with this phone is its ergonomics as I found it rather uncomfortable to hold due to the shape perhaps, the design of the phone in general and its glossy, fingerprint magnet back. Thick side bezels are another thing that I could poke at but again, I would be nitpicking.

As with most Xiaomi devices by now, it wouldn’t be fair if I compared the phones with the big boys without putting things in perspective; Their price points pretty much forgive their flaws 70% of the time, given that their flaws aren’t necessarily game breakingly major as well. It’s then easy to say that while this phone isn’t without its own set of flaws, the things it has going for it outweigh them easily.

RedmiNote-Scoring

Pros

  • MIUI OS is light and works well
  • Very little bloatware
  • Screen has nice colours and good viewing angles
  • Camera is quite good during daylight photography
  • Video Record quality is good
  • Removable battery
  • MicroSD slot means you should never have storage issues
  • Octacore with 2GB of RAM is no performance slouch
  • Really long battery life
  • A great buy at 155 USD

Cons

  • Thicker side bezels
  • Large for 5.5” device
  • Glossy back is a fingerprint magnet
  • Glossy back and curvature don’t help in creating a secure grip
  • Ergonomics leave a bit more to be desired
  • Uninspiring design
  • Average audio output quality
  • Poor night photography capabilities
  • Delay when taking photos can be annoying.

A great budget phablet, that presents good value for money. I give it an 8.0/10.

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