Xiaomi is no longer a mere shadow in the wake of giants.
Today, it manufactures some of the most wanted phone that you can’t get - the humongous Xiaomi Mi Note Pro comes to mind. And there’s the metal-clad Xiaomi Mi 4, which has not left its homeground since it was unveiled last year. That’s not the end of the world though - at least, not with what Hugo Barra showed during the Xiaomi Mi 4i launch in India.
Though it has shed the metal skin of its Mi 4 sibling and chose a non-glossy plastic body, the Mi 4i’s design philosophy, right down to the hardware selection, is true to Xiaomi’s mantra. Giving the best possible hardware, at a fraction of the cost. At S$279, this is not in the league of its crazy cheap Redmi series. This is a smartphone built with an octa-core processor, an impressive full HD display and a lightweight yet sturdy body.
Now here’s the big question - is it value for money, or is there something missing in the picture?
Plastic isn’t evil
Yes, we said it - plastic is great. No, we didn’t hit our head. While we’re not really fans of the cheap plastic feel associated with budget smartphones, there’s something about Mi 4i’s build that feels very different. If we had to put our finger on why, it’s down to the shape. Small details like a slight curve around the corners of the phone adds to the premium look and feel of the Mi 4i.
That, and a camera module that’s flushed with the body, yet keeping the body deliciously thin at a mere 7.8mm. Admittedly, it’s not as razer-thin as an Oppo R5, or even under 7mm like the iPhone 6 is. We get that, because this little difference means nothing when you get a firm grip on this Android smartphone. Tiny hands? Not a problem, because it’s not going to give your thumbs a muscle-straining yoga stretching exercise.
A display of quality
Fair warning, we’re going to throw a whole bunch of praises on Mi 4i’s wondrous display. First, let’s talk about that 5in screen. It’s easy on the eye, no squinting required. It’s no 2K screen, yet the full HD resolution at this screen size gives you the magical display density of 441 pixels per inch. Once you set your sights on the display, you’ll form a few impressions - sharp, clear and colourful.
The last point is worth a separate mention. Colour accuracy on the Mi 4i is incredible when you view it indoors. Everything pops right out at you, and once your eyes leave the screen, what you see outside of it feels faded and dull.
Not even the harshest sunlight can lower our impression of the screen quality, thanks to its Sunlight Display feature. Once a strong light source is detected by the Mi 4i, the screen automatically corrects the colour gamut, keeping the brighter tones in check while enhancing the darker areas to produce a similar colour accuracy as you see indoors.
This worked wonders when we were taking photos, especially with manual mode. With it, we were able to accurately choose the right white balance, exposure values and even ISO settings to get the shots right.
The only thing that stands out as an oddity is the UI. Under the sun, app icons tend towards a warmer hue. But on the bright side, the warmer colours keep the screen brightness at a more manageable level, rather than going all out and blinding you outright.
Megapixels aren’t everything. The Mi 4i packs an impressively above average 13MP sensor and f/2.0 aperture, both of which performed well with daytime shots. It doesn’t create imaging miracles, and slight care has to be taken, especially with camera shakes, to keep the photos sharp and free from blur. But for the most part, we were quite pleased with the Instagram-worthy shots.
Its autofocus speeds tend to be a bit iffy at times, but for the most part, it zeroes in pretty quick. The clean camera user interface that requires minimal swipes and quick on-screen taps aren’t hard to figure out either.
Up to this point, the Mi 4i has fared pretty well. But after sunset, in the absence of light, it revealed a common problem amongst smartphones - below average low-light shots. Not to say it’s totally abysmal, there’s still enough details left in the image. Slap on a few Instagram filters, and you can still pass it off as a work of photography art.
The power of eight
It’s not every day that you hear of a phone that’s powered by a processor with eight cores. This is what you’ll find on the Mi 4i - a Snapdragon 64-bit octa-core processor. And with 2GB of RAM, you’ll be thinking how this is even an under S$300 smartphone.
If we were to play the numbers game, the Antutu benchmark score is an impressive 37,941. But in real-world performance, it’s still got a lot of work to do. It can handle basic games like Final Fantasy Record Keeper with no lag. Pace it with graphics intensive games like Marvel Future Fight and it’ll struggle.
While the phone generally handles apps without visible lags, it gets a bit sluggish after extended use. Word of advice - be diligent in clearing apps from the background. Be ruthless if you have to, swipe down to lock the most often used apps and close every other diligently every time you’re done with the app.
That said, if the Mi 4i is primarily used for emails, messaging and the occasional social network stalking, it does the job darn well. Especially with its 4G connectivity, which doesn’t disappoint* when you need to scan through an Instagram feed in a short few minutes.
Then, there’s the elephant in the room - a missing microSD slot. And it doesn’t help that there’s only 16GB of internal storage loaded within the Mi 4i, not to mention a portion of it has been taken up by the Android OS and MIUI. These seem like deal breakers, but only for those who haven’t invested heavily in cloud storage. By now, you would have at least a few GB saved up, either from Google Drive or Dropbox. So there’s really no cause for concern here.
*Still highly dependent on your network coverage, the Mi 4i can’t work miracles if the network speed is slow. Or, if you’re not using a 4G data plan.
It’s all about Mi
Everything you expect from the past MIUI is found on the Mi 4i. Clean, intuitive and highly customisable. Well, except for the fact that you can’t sort the apps in alphabetical order. Quite a pickle, given that apps reside in all the pages, not within a separate app drawer. For those obsessed with keeping things neat, this’ll bug you to no end. The upside to this, is that you can re-arrange the apps’ orders in batches - simply pinch the screen and tap the least often used apps, bunch them together into a folder and voila - your very own app drawer.
This is the in-depth level at which you control the Mi 4i’s user interface. You’re not shackled by silly limits to move one app at a time. You have the freedom to tweak the phone to high performance for all-out gaming, or balance it out to keep the battery use in check. You can spice up the UI with various themes and dress it up to your whim.
Try doing that with any other Android phones. Or even an iPhone. You get the point.
Tweaking the phone’s performance is crucial if you want to keep the Mi 4i functional. Because for all that’s said about its 3120mAh battery, it’s a thirsty beast. Subjecting the phone to a 720p video loop, at 50% brightness and volume gave us a running time of nearly 10 hours. This test, done on Wi-Fi for the first part and 4G once the battery hits 50%, is one objective way of looking at its mileage.
Using a smartphone, however, is a very subjective matter. Heavy usage that involves constant emails and WhatsApp messages sucks the battery dry within a working day. Going cold turkey by refusing to fire up Facebook, Twitter or Instagram managed to improve its mileage, though not by much when it’s merely an extra hour.
On average, we had to give it a new charge for every 12 hours of usage. To be fair, the Mi 4i allows you to create a very detailed battery profile, one that lets you tweak the CPU performance, limit the screen brightness, GPS, synchronisation and anything else that saps the life out of it. With careful planning and figuring out what we exactly need, we managed to push the Mi 4i’s battery life towards the 16 hour mark.
Considering that the Mi 4i is armed to the teeth with a 1080p screen and has to handle the unenviable task of switching between 3G and 4G networks due to uneven coverage, it has done quite well. Not great, but passable.
Xiaomi Mi 4i verdict
If you’re set on getting the Mi 4i, it’s a wise choice. It’s absolutely value for money, giving you beyond decent hardware, performance and most of all, looks of envy for a fraction of the price tagged to flagship smartphones.
From a strictly hardware comparison, it’s miles ahead of what you get with the iPhone - a bigger display, higher screen resolution and solid feel. But lest you think it’ll convert the horde of iPhone fanatics, it’s going to take a while more. For one, there’s work to be done to reduce the slight lags that occasionally pop up - a problem that's rarely seen on the top-end devices.
While it doesn’t match up to the glass and metal looks of the Samsung Galaxy S6 or HTC One M9, the fine machining done on the Mi 4i has made it equally desirable. Plastic or not, this is one of Xiaomi’s finest work, and it doesn’t require you to break the piggy bank.