You win some, you lose some. That's what most Android makers have to deal with when they try to lower the price tag on a smartphone.
Tossing in a less powerful processor, removing sensors and all sorts of other "luxury" components and features, all in the noble quest to make the smartphone more affordable and get it into more hands. Some companies go too low and present a crippled phone that’s nowhere near the capabilities of the flagship phone it's based upon. Others end up with a compromise between performance and price, presenting a smartphone that's shaved only a few features but also shaved only some of the cost.
Motorola has bucked the trend with its Moto G, a phone that threw the smackdown on Samsung and HTC with its awesome performance and a S$318 price tag. It's become the benchmark for all wannabe budget smartphones to follow. It's unrivalled, reigning supreme as the best value-for-money Android device available, armed to the teeth with above-average hardware without burning a hole in your wallet.
Yesterday, that was true. But today there's a new kid on the budget smartphone block. A S$169 Android 4.2 cracker from Chinese company Xiaomi.
Meet the Redmi.
Build: modest yet practical
Manage your expectations - you’re going to see a lot of plastic on this budget Android device. None of the cool metal or sleek lines of an HTC One appear anywhere near the Redmi. But it’s not all bad, the plastic build keeps its weight manageable at 158g. You won’t even get a decent biceps workout while you fiddle with the phone. The build is pretty solid, too. Not enough to toss and knock someone out, but sufficient to know that it’s sitting comfortably in your pockets.
Can’t live with the dull colours the phone came in? Give it a makeover. You get to choose between a subtle dark grey and flashy bright red rear cover to match your mood. These colour options are broken down to a matte or glossy choice. Want to avoid those smudgy fingerprints? Go for the matte cover and screen protector sold separately on Xiaomi’s online retail store.
You still want more colour options? There are five more to choose from when you strap the Redmi with the soft gel covers - white, rose, blue, yellow and black.
Display: comfortable on the eyes
Its 4.7in display is a tad larger than the Moto G’s modest 4.5in screen. At the same display resolution of 1280 x 720 pixels, the Redmi’s display density is therefore lower than the Moto G’s, but but not by much - it's 312ppi to the Motorola's 326ppi (which in turn matches the old iPhone 5's pixel density).
The numbers don’t tell the full story anyway. The Redmi proves that point when you watch a movie on its 720p IPS panel. Viewing angles are great. So good, it bugged us when our fellow commuters were able to peek at the screen from the sides. Under direct sunlight, text and images are still legible, thanks to the screen’s capable auto-brightness setting. Colour richness is another surprise - it’s almost an even match against the OLED displays we've recently seen, with only black depth lacking on the Redmi's Sharp-made display when compared side-by-side with the more expensive tech. At this price, we'll happily take that compromise.
Camera: lucky number 8
Unlike the Moto G, the Redmi doesn’t hold back in the imaging department. The 8-megapixel sensor really gets the job done, with a snappy autofocus and a strong attention to details. Add HDR enhancement and you can fake it as a world-class photographer when you produce bokeh shots with the camera’s f/2.2 aperture.
Don’t expect it to match the likes of the Nokia Lumia 1020 or Apple’s iPhone 5s, but it’s good for basic food photography to tantalise your friends’ tastebuds on Facebook or Twitter. Just don’t take it on your spy adventures - under low-light conditions, photos end up as grainy portraits.
Besides its decent photography skills, the camera app deserves an extra brownie point for its integrated QR code reader. If only it also had the camera smarts of Oppo’s rotating 13-megapixel camera, but that’s really too much to ask for in a budget Android smartphone.
Performance: it’s not about the numbers
We’re about halfway through this review, and you must be wondering when we’ll use the “this is a great phone, but…” disclaimer. Wait for it, it’s coming soon, let us share the rest of the good stuff first.
It might come in at under S$200, but the Redmi is still armed with a quad-core processor. Yes, a quad-core clocked to 1.5GHz. Now if you’re snobbish about the brand, this isn’t a Qualcomm Snapdragon or Nvidia Tegra brain we’re looking at. Heard of MediaTek? No? Neither had we, and we reserved some skepticism for this relatively unknown chip.
Sure enough, the AnTuTu benchmark rated the Redmi with a score of 16,492. A far cry from your usual quad-core line-up, most of which are above 20,000. Is that sufficient reason to give the Xiaomi phone the thumbs down?
Once again, numbers aren’t everything. The benchmark score serves as a gauge, but it doesn’t consider the actual user experience. In this case, the Redmi is far from being crippled. The interface is exceedingly smooth thanks to the MIUI (more on that later) and it takes on multitasking with gusto. At one point, we counted 6 apps running in the background and it felt as though the unit wanted more, welcoming the opportunity to test its legs. And the Redmi has no problems with graphics-heavy games such as Dead Trigger 2 and Real Racing 3, leaving little doubt that this little ripper isn't afraid of a spot of heavy lifting.
Connectivity options don’t deviate far from the standard offering - Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, GPS, and an array of sensors to shake and sort your apps are included. The Redmi also comes with dual SIM support, allowing you to receive and send both calls and messages on two different numbers concurrently.
Sounds too good to be true? Time to burst the bubble - it’s a great phone, but it lacks 4G connectivity. None of those faster-than-you-can-blink download speeds here. Yeah, good luck waiting for our selfie-crazy friends’ photos to appear on Instagram. Plus, once we overloaded it with more than 10 apps and hit the 1GB memory limit, it showed visible lag when it transitioned between apps. It's not a deal-breaker, but it does mean keeping a watchful eye on background tasks and properly closing those that you're no longer using.
At this point, Xiaomi’s MIUI swoops in to save the day.
READ MORE: Motorola Moto G review
Operating system - Android 4.2.2
Processor - 1.5GHz MediaTek quad-core processor
RAM - 1GB
Screen - 4.7in IPS with 1280x720 resolution (312ppi)
Camera - 8MP rear, 1.3MP front
Storage - 4GB internal, microSD expandable up to 32GB
Data - 2G/3G
Battery - 2000mAh
Dimensions/weight - 139 x 69 x 9.9mm/158g
OS: unleashing Android’s full potential
Put the price and the specs to one side and there are still two reasons that you'll want the Redmi - MIUI 5.0 and themes. The former, which is a customised Android ROM that led to Xiaomi’s meteoric rise in China, was its starting point before it started making its own smartphones. It was also a huge pull factor for Hugo Barra, then Google Android’s vice president for product management who’s now leading Xiaomi’s international expansion plans as its global vice president.
Xiaomi placed a lot of attention on the MIUI interface. Every detail, from menu and app transitions, to font size and app icons, are a notch above Google’s stock Android UI. In more ways than one, the UI reminds us of Apple’s iOS 7 - apps are displayed on the home page, rather than a cacophony of icons sitting within the app drawer.
The beauty of MIUI is that you can apply themes to change up the interface. The extreme makeover replaces everything, right down to the app icons, with a customised user interface designed by other MIUI users. Over 5000 themes, which cost nothing to below S$2, are housed in the Xiaomi Theme store.
But deep down, MIUI has more to offer than aesthetic makeovers. MIUI has the option to switch between a full-fledged and lite mode. Perfect for grandparents, who want larger-than-life fonts to read and perform basic cellular and messaging functions. Gramps don’t need none of the apps nonsense.
The deep level of customisation in MIUI allows you to be very specific about what an app can or can’t do. Don’t want Facebook to constantly suck data off your monthly plan? Deny background access to the app. If the phone gets sluggish, press and hold the menu button, bring up the task manager and wipe apps off the memory list. Need WhatsApp to run constantly? Lock it in the task manager. All these nitty gritty details might seem insignificant. Add them all up, thuough, and it makes a huge difference to the phone’s performance.
READ MORE: 25 fantastic free Android games
Battery: it keeps going and going
We started the battery abuse with the usual suspects - WhatsApp, Facebook, web surfing and a few quick calls that didn't stretch beyond 2 minutes. The considerably low usage was lenient on the battery, allowing the Redmi to stay alive for 48 hours.
In case you missed it, let us repeat what we said about the battery mileage - 48 hours.
This is by far one of the longest uptimes we’ve seen on an Android phone running on the bare minimum. In comparison, the Moto G can last for a full day, while larger devices with souped-up specs tend to border along the same one-day mileage.
Adding at least 30 minutes of movie playback, Bluetooth audio streaming and more hours stalking our friends on Facebook brought the mileage to slightly more than a day. Still decent, and roughly what the average, conscientious buyer will get, as we were killing apps and stopping some from running in the background to conserve energy and data usage.
In our formal test, which loops a 720p video at 50% brightness and switching between Wi-Fi and 3G mobile data at the halfway point, the Redmi lasted for 10 hours and 21 minutes.
Your mileage will definitely differ, depending on how heavily you abuse the battery with apps. On the bright side, you can purchase additional batteries that are amazingly flat, and an equally thin battery charger, from its online store.
On its home turf of China, Xiaomi already has a reputation to match the big Android manufacturers. Heck, it's even up there with Apple.
And outside China it's now scored a big victory in the budget smartphone category, dealing out an Android 4.2 smartphone for a mere S$169. Not even the Moto G or the Nokia Lumia 520 come close to the hardware options Xiaomi delivers with the Redmi. And don’t even get us started on the voodoo that gets two-days of use from that dinky 2000mAh battery.
For now, it reigns supreme as the best value-for-money Android smartphone. Given time, Xiaomi could well overshadow the Droid stalwarts at the other end, too - the flagship Mi3 is about to embark on a global conquest.
Watch out, Samsung, HTC, Sony, LG and even Google. There's a new badass on your tail, and it’s called Xiaomi.