Don’t have $500 to spend on a smartphone? Forget about that top-tier of next-gen devices.
At least, that’s what we’ve been conditioned to think. For years we've tried to man-up while secretly weeping whenever the next flagship phone is announced with a S$1000 price tag. And it's about to happen again with the likes of the next Samsung Galaxy S and iPhone well on their way to make your budget-conscious life miserable.
But perhaps this time the tears won't come. Perhaps you'll never be held hostage by the Next Big Thing again.
Because now you don't need S$1000 for a top-notch phone. You don't even need S$500. All you need is S$419 for a Xiaomi Mi3.
And before you go thinking that price is attached to a two-year contract with SingTel, StarHub or M1, think again - S$419 is the full, SIM-free price. True story.
Build: that cool metal sheen
Samsung, take note - this is how you make a snazzy phone. None of that plastic (no, we’re not going to call it "polycarbonate") used on the Galaxy phones' chassis will be seen on the Mi3. Its innards are encased in a lightweight magnesium alloy body. Its sleek form factor, just 8.1mm deep, might be just slightly thicker than the iPhone 5s’ 7.6mm body, but it's a negligible difference in real life.
The size is practically perfect - we were immediately sold on how easy it was to type messages and tap the corners of the screen with one hand. It also looks and feels great, perfect for design-conscious smartphone users. And while the non-removable casing will be seen as a downside by some, it gives the Mi3 a real sense of solidity.
Display: full HD comfort
Some people love massive phones, but unless you're an NBA player, they're usually way too large to manage with one hand. The Mi3's 5in display hits the sweet spot for us "normal" people.
And also on the bright side (pun totally intended), its IPS panel is still legible under strong daylight. Movies played on its 1080p, Full HD display are a real treat for the eyes - we had to double-check the specs to make sure it wasn't an OLED display. Viewing angles are also plenty wide enough, allowing you to glance and spot messages when the phone is at your side.
Admittedly, there’s one fault - too many fingerprints all over the screen. Yep, we’re being nitpicky, and you can always get a matte screen protector from Xiaomi to rid the display of ugly smudges if you're as fussy as we are.
Camera: an eye for detail
Armed with a 13-megapixel camera, the Mi3 handles imaging under normal daylight without problems. Quick autofocus speeds and a simple camera user interface mean you're able to spend your time on actual photo-taking, not figuring out the controls.
As with the Redmi, the Mi3 has an audio capture mode that detects a rise in audio level, and uses that as a gauge to activate the shutter. A useful feature, especially when you’re taking that narcissistic selfie and can’t see where the shutter button is.
The dual-LED flash compensates pretty well when there's a lack of light, but it gets too aggressive and destroys skin tones under really dark scenarios. Its HDR mode and an option to tweak skin tone colours help. Not a huge amount, but it suffices for a smartphone camera.
Performance: enter the Snapdragon
So far, we’re loving the phone’s build and screen quality, and we're expecting to be similarly pleased with the Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 processor powering the Mi3.
Sure enough, AnTuTu benchmark returns a massive score of 35,868, which puts it right up there with the LG G2. It handled less-graphically intensive games such as Angry Birds and Star Wars: Tiny Death Star with ease, and even the likes of Dead Trigger 2 posed no problem. Both 720p and 1080p videos didn't present a challenge to it either. And even when we loaded nearly 10 apps, it felt as though the Mi3’s 2GB RAM wanted even more punishing apps to tax it further.
Download speeds, however, could be a deal-breaker. That's right, there's no 4G here. It was the same case with the Redmi, but we had hoped Xiaomi would have pushed the boat out beyond 3G for its flagship. But obviously something had to go to get down to S$419, and unfortunately 4G was it.
OS: discover more as you customise
Moving to the Mi3 from an iPhone? You're going to feel right at home, because Xiaomi's MIUI skin for Android bears an uncanny resemblance to Apple’s iOS. You can even customise the user interface and have iOS 7 icons invading the screen.
Power users will love all the tiny features that might individually make little difference, but add up to something lovely. Take, for example, its Security app: deep within, you can customise an apps’ permission settings, specifying which phone features it can or can't access. Check the Battery app, and you can monitor how long it takes to give the phone a full charge. Keep an app constantly active, lock it in, and prevent the task manager from closing it.
Battery: more of a sprinter than a marathon runner
There’s so much to like about the Mi3, but at its final test station, it revealed an unfortunate and crucial shortcoming - battery life.
With short bursts of WhatsApp, Facebook, and around three sessions of web surfing that lasted below 10 minutes, the Mi3’s battery dipped from a full charge to 90% in an hour. Juice was depleted 23 hours after it left the charging cradle, half of which was spent in standby mode. Forcing the phone to constantly download data for an hour dropped the battery meter drastically from 100% to 70%. Go ballistic with movies, games and apps, and you could maybe squeeze 12 hours of usage.
On a Wi-Fi connection, the phone looped a 720p video at 50% brightness for five hours before its charge hit the halfway mark. Once we switched over to a 3G connection, it wiped out the remaining power within three hours.
It’s an average return, but we were hoping for the same stamina seen on the Redmi. Apparently not. Sadly, you can’t remove the case and switch in a fresh battery, so get those battery packs ready.
Xiaomi has made one heck of a smartphone, sending a strong message to its rivals and consumers - you don’t have to pay huge money for great quality.
Everything about the Mi3 screams premium, from its lightweight metal build and slim profile, to the fantastic, bright 5in screen. Top-notch app management, insanely smooth performance, as well as a plethora of themes to customise and give your Mi3 a unique look (assuming your friends don't all fall for the same theme) are the top reasons to get this Android smartphone.
Unfortunately, it can’t run a power marathon like its more affordable Redmi sibling. That, and the lack of support for 4G networks here, has forced us to keep the ratings lower.
If you can look past these not-so-minor downsides, every single dollar you spend is worth it.