Admit it, if you can’t have something, you want it even more. It’s the chase, that rush when you eventually have it in your hands after the long wait, that feeds your desire.
In our case, it’s the Xiaomi Mi Note. Some say love at first sight is overrated. We say, these people have never set their eyes on this phablet. Or even spent a few days with it.
On all fronts, the Mi Note covers it all - powerful hardware powering it, an amazingly simple user interface. But most importantly, it won’t force you to dig too deep into the cash pile as it’s moderately priced below S$600 with flagship hardware to boot.
For the rare few who need some convincing, you’ll sing a different tune at the end of this review.
Through the looking glass
Despite what detractors have been saying about Xiaomi’s habit of aping design concepts from Apple, Samsung or any other smartphone makers out there, we say it’s a thing of the past. That moment, when we held the Mi Note, was full of emotions. The absolute adoration with Xiaomi’s latest and greatest is indescribable.
For one, its body is devoid of plastic, an element commonly seen on its more affordable Redmi range, and most recently, the Mi 4i. None of that on the Mi Note. The phablet is very generous with the use of metal and glass, mainly the latter which wraps the body. What we were quite impressed with is how the phone’s rear glass contours and fits snuggly in our hands.
Two hands are needed, since the 5.7in screen is too large even for our fingers to extend across the corners. That said, the phone isn’t hard to handle, and it was pretty easy to swipe sideways on the home button to activate its one-handed mode. Which, by the way, lets you choose between a 4.5in, 4in or 3.5in screen to suit your hand size.
There’s still the worry about dropping and shattering that fragile-looking glass. But it’s less likely to happen with the natural fit of the phone.
Unless, of course, you’re in the same league of clumsiness as we are. A slight mishap (read: butterfingers) later, the Mi Note landed on a smooth, tiled floor. We breathed a sigh of relief when not a single crack was seen on the glass. Until we saw a slight dent along the metal edge. Believe us, we felt a strong ache in our hearts when we saw the damage.
Xiaomi and the Technicolour screen
One thing that Xiaomi has been very consistent with is its display quality. It doesn’t matter if it’s the budget-friendly Redmi 2, mid-range Mi 4i or the top-specced Mi Note, all three will leave you amazed with the rich colours of the screen.
In the Mi Note’s case, the 5.7in full HD screen gives a display density of 386ppi. Not exactly the highest around (think Samsung Galaxy Note 4 and its 2K screen), but when we made eye contact with the sharp, detailed icons and text that pops right out from the Mi Note’s screen, those numbers don’t matter.
When we passed the unit around, one comment kept ringing in our ears. It’s the colours, really, that distinguishes the Mi Note from the I’m-also-an-affordable-and-top-end wannabe phablets. It was a common observation that proved Xiaomi’s success in capturing a user’s visual attention - through a screen that makes you stare at it longer than you should. That’s probably the reason why we couldn’t stop watching House of Cards on the Mi Note.
Leave it to the mercy of the bright sun (and we definitely get a lot of that here) and the much talked about Sunlight Display kicks in almost instantly. Just like the Mi 4i, the Mi Note will adapt to the warm sunlight hue, raising the contrast of the screen colours to create the same, natural visual as though you were in an indoor environment. Screen legibility is definitely there, keeping our eyes adequately satisfied and comfortable even under strong sunlight.
(Camera) eyes on its front and back
The Mi Note doesn’t take average, decent photos. It’s much, much better. A 13MP sensor and f/2.0 aperture translates to shots full of details and distinctly sharp.
Unlike its more affordable Mi 4i sibling, the Mi Note has the magical optical image stabilisation feature. Well, not magical in the sense that every shot turns out like a winning image worthy of our Smartphone Photography Awards. But it’s enough help to reduce the chances of blurry images appearing or making night shots easier to capture without worrying about shutter speed.
Overall, the rear 13MP camera fares very well with daytime shots. Due in part, we figured, to the auto HDR that balances out the imperfections in the contrast and white balance of your shots. Swipe to the left, bring up the filter menu and add a your favourite filter to the mix, and you have yourself an Instagram-worthy shot.
Mirror shot is particularly interesting for us. Plus, low-light shots are enhanced automatically. But we’re steering clear of that Beautify mode. Yes, it smooths out all the creases, wrinkles and probably reduces a few years on our face. But it looks too unnatural for our liking.
Camera interfaces that are easy to use don’t come easy. In a case of accidental swiping, we also discovered how easy it was to swipe left to select the different camera modes (Panorama, Manual, Refocus). Switching between cameras for selfies requires either an upwards or downwards swipe, and that’s it.
Such swipes are useful, especially if you don’t want to stretch your thumbs to the corners just to tap on the settings, mode or other camera menus. None of which, by the way, are visible on the Mi Note’s camera UI.
On a deeper level, there are more advanced camera settings that add more usability to the Mi Note’s camera. Auto-capturing shots when the phone is in a stable position with minimal motion, add a timestamp to images (pretty old school if you ask us) and many more features are right there, just a tad hidden within the settings and waiting to be discovered.
Four is better than eight
Numerically speaking, that doesn’t sound right. But for the Mi Note, the Snapdragon quad-core 2.5GHz processor performed much, much better than the laggy experience we faced with the Mi 4i’s octa-core processor. Apps weren’t stuttering nor did they take nearly five seconds to load. Tap and go, that’s the general feel of everything you do on the Mi Note.
We weren’t exactly lenient with the Mi Note either. Having 3GB of RAM to work with, we locked often used apps such as Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram and Gmail in the background. Occasionally, we do wipe the slate clean, closing less accessed and resource-hogging apps. The result is an exceptionally smooth and amazingly stutter-free Mi Note.
Switching between apps is a one-second affair. Graphics intensive games like Marvel Future Fight bow before the might of the Snapdragon 801 processor, devoid of jerky screen transitions and full of buttery smooth swiping. Web browsing is also quite speedy with 4G connectivity loading web pages in the blink of an eye.
Clearly, we love what the Mi Note is capable of. Till now, it hasn’t given us or anyone else a reason to give it a sideways glance. The fact that Xiaomi made a conscious decision to sell the Mi Note with 64GB of internal storage tells us that it’s aware of user needs, especially those who consume media heavily on their phones.
Sure, it doesn’t have an expandable microSD card option. But really, if you can go through 64GB (technically, it’s around 59GB since Android gobbles up a few GB), perhaps streaming music from Spotify and movies from Netflix will help with the storage issue.
The story of MI, U and I
MIUI 6.0. The final result of numerous user feedback and years of tweaking. Customisation galore, that sums up what you need to know about Xiaomi’s in-house user interface.
Basic users who just want to jazz things up can simply choose from an extensive list of themes. Spend some time in the theme store and you’ll find one particular irony - an iOS 9 theme that ranks pretty high on the popularity chart.
Jokes aside, you get to do more than apply themes to the Mi Note. Bunching apps together and tossing them all into a page with one tap, granting very specific permissions to apps, hiding messages in a secret locked folder, clearing redundant files that you’ve downloaded with one tap. These are just the tip of the iceberg.
Truth is, MIUI 6.0 is capable of so much more, and we’ve only scratched the surface.
We’ve always believed that numbers don’t tell the full story. Else, a 3000mAh battery that lasts more than a day will sound incredibly unbelievable.
But that’s exactly what the Mi Note is capable. We were equally shocked, having no strong expectations of its mileage, assuming it has to feed a hungry phone loaded with top-end hardware. Our first full charge with the Mi Note was only depleted after 28 hours, much to our surprise.
To be fair, we didn’t go all out with social network stalking, media streaming or spending a good 30 minutes on the phone. But it was enough to give us a rough idea of how the Mi Note performs for an average user.
Subjecting it to heavier usage definitely reduced the mileage, but not as much as we expected. The battery kept the Mi Note alive throughout a day of work, just slightly above 14 hours. That’s essentially all the time you need to bring the phone to work, use it for the day and perhaps a few hours at night before you give it a new lease of life when you’re home.
In the interest of creating a fair dueling ground, the Mi Note was given the same controlled battery test. Running a 720p video loop at 50% brightness and switching between 4G and Wi-Fi pushed the Mi Note to the brink of death at the 10-hour mark. A decent mileage, considering most phablets we've tested fell flat within eight to nine hours.
Xiaomi Mi Note verdict
This is by far Xiaomi’s most expensive smartphone. But we’re actually quite reluctant to use the word expensive, considering that the Mi Note costs just S$569 without contract.
The whole idea of paying top dollars for a smartphone is to get the best hardware and experience when you use it. It has a crystal sharp screen, great camera work, and most importantly, the looks that makes creates smartphone envy amongst your peers.
Because truth is, Xiaomi has given us the most bang for buck smartphone that does pretty much everything very well.