“The second time’s always better,” said Xiaomi global vice president Hugo Barra as he made his entrance during the Xiaomi Redmi Note 2 launch.

Like a sequel in a movie trilogy, a lot is riding on the successor to the Redmi Note. It could make it big like Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back or feel like the world has ended when you watched The Matrix Reloaded.

The Redmi Note 2, from first impression, seems to lean towards the former. An affordable phablet that has the makings of an above average smartphone, that’s our initial take on Xiaomi’s latest phablet.

The same Redmi note you love

It’s easy to be impressed with the Redmi Note 2 once we held it in our hands. 8.25mm thin and 160g light. Those are just numbers, but when our hands wrapped around the matte plastic back, it’s the sort of feeling that makes you all warm and fuzzy. This is a phone that, despite all logic, feels good even though its body is neither metal nor glass.

The Redmi Note 2, however, won’t get any design awards. As great as it looks and feels, that's not a huge departure from its predecessor. Or for that matter, it looks quite similar to its previous Redmi lineup. That said, it’s still a design that maintains Xiaomi’s design DNA - simple and unassuming.

Let there be Sunlight Display

There’s probably no surprises when it comes to the display. The 5.5in panel is a sight to behold, and the same Sunlight Display feature that makes screen viewing much easier under sunlight is carried over from the Xiaomi Mi 4i.

From our few moments with the Redmi Note 2, colours were quite rich and spot-on, especially under sunlight. Photos taken with the 13MP snapper (more on that later) also looked exceptionally clear and full of life on the screen.

The unavoidable comparison to Apple’s iPhone 6s Plus was made in the presentation, with Barra noting that the Redmi Note 2 has a 7% higher screen-to-body ratio than Apple’s phablet. It should mean something but in reality, your viewing experience won’t be any different. If anything, it’s just as good as you would see it on an iPhone 6s Plus.

Lucky number MIUI 7

Here’s some good news, the Redmi Note 2 ships with the latest MIUI 7. That gives you a whole load of new features, but what caught our eye was Xiaomi’s promise of a better battery life and faster startup time.

While this is only felt once we’ve spent more time with the phone, it’s interesting to note that MIUI 7 now forces apps to wake up at the same time. Doing so reduces the load on the octa-core processor, keeping specific cores idle when apps are asleep or triggered once they’re all awake.

There are a whole slew of new features added with MIUI 7, and at the very least, the sleeker looking new design, along with new themes, makes it hard to keep our eyes off the screen.

Smile, you're on Redmi camera

Ah, camera. The one thing that makes or breaks a smartphone nowadays. Take a good image and the phone will get the thumbs up. The Redmi Note 2’s rear and front snappers are rated at 13MP and 5MP respectively, which is more than adequate to capture more pixels to zoom into the image.

But Xiaomi didn’t shine the spotlight on the Samsung sensor nor the Beautify mode. It’s the fast 0.1 autofocus speed that got a lot of attention during the hands-on. And it's using the same Phase Detection Auto Focus (PDAF) technology that’s found in Apple’s iPhone 6s Plus, a departure from the usual contrast autofocus used in most phones. The latter is really a trial and error method, while PDAF calculates the distance between two misfocused images, quickly adjusting and compensating to the right focus.

When we took a few snaps with the Redmi Note 2’s camera and compared the autofocus speed, Xiaomi’s claim is quite bold and true. Now, what it needs to prove is its 13MP Samsung camera sensor’s imaging prowess when we put it through our imaging test.

Power of the Helios

With a name like Helio X10 for its processor, the Redmi Note 2 has big shoes to fill. Note that this is an octa-core processors, consisting of four performance cores and four power efficient cores that switch around to match the needs of the phone.

All that hardware talk probably doesn’t matter much to you. Here’s what will - when we swiped across MIUI and launched a few apps, the phone didn’t struggle in terms of loading speeds and is generally a smooth experience. Initial impressions, however, don’t tell the full story. Not until we’ve spent at least a few days to fully stress test the phone’s performance and its 3060mAh battery.

According to Xiaomi, the Redmi Note 2’s Antutu benchmark reports 50,646, almost neck-to-neck with the Motorola Nexus 6 and higher than Samsung Galaxy Note 4. In a way, you’re getting a phone that compares to last year’s model, at a fraction of the cost.

Xiaomi Redmi Note 2 initial impressions

To reiterate, the Xiaomi Redmi Note 2 is a phone that doesn’t break your piggy bank. And for that price, you’re practically robbing Xiaomi blind because you’re getting a phone with pretty decent specs.

It’s not an Apple iPhone 6s Plus or Samsung Galaxy Note 5. But it’s almost just as good, and you’ll still have spare cash to pamper yourself with more accessories for your Xiaomi Redmi Note 2.