2016 is shaping up to be a great year for smartphones and the Xioami Mi 5 is an embodiment of many of the best trends. Like Samsung’s Galaxy S7, the Mi 5 is a handsome mix of the latest specs and Android software, and it checks off most of the requisite boxes for a premium mobile device: beautiful display, fast fingerprint sensor, large battery, and the latest LTE modem. But unlike traditional flagships, Xiaomi’s new premier smartphone costs below Rs 27,000.
Xiaomi is one of China’s most popular brands precisely because of its fanatical commitment to having the most aggressive specs-to-price ratio. It sees itself as a mobile internet company first (hence the “Mi” in its product names) and strives to make a profit not by selling hardware but by selling stuff via that hardware. That makes it imperative to create phones that are as cheap and, at the same time, as pleasurable to use as possible, which only serves to benefit Xiaomi’s users. By now, it might be trite to say that premium smartphone features keep trickling down to lower price tiers, but they really are, and it’s companies like Xiaomi that are pushing that trend hardest and fastest.
First impressions of the Xiaomi Mi 5 are favorable, owing to its glamorous appearance, though they’re offset by some concerns about the handset’s fit and finish. A glossy glass back curves into a metal frame, which wraps around to the front and culminates in a chamfered edge. Reflections dance prettily across those chamfers and glass to lend the Mi 5 a sophisticated look, which is helped by the almost complete absence of side bezels on the front. Xiaomi makes very efficient use of the space around this phone’s attractive 5.15 inch display, fitting a home button with built-in fingerprint sensor next to capacitive touch controls at the bottom.
The Mi 5 has a bigger screen and a higher (1080p) resolution than Apple’s iPhone 6S, but is practically identical in size. Because it doesn’t have a full metal construction, Xiaomi’s phone is also noticeably lighter, and because it’s tailored to the Asian market, it has a pair of nano-SIM card slots.
The Mi 5’s rear is also slippery, It’s not a problem for handling the phone, which has its buttons in all the right places volume rocker and power button within easy reach of the right thumb and is actually a breeze to use with a single hand.
Xiaomi’s Mi 5 pulls ahead in the specs department. And we are talking about meaningful specs. The Mi 5’s Snapdragon 820 chipset is literally years ahead, and its inclusion pays off in a big way. Firstly, we don’t think we have seen better LTE performance from any phone that we have tested yet. Qualcomm makes a big deal out of the X12 modem built into the Snapdragon 820 and we can vouch for its benefits. The Mi 5 maintained signal even inside the lower floor of a mall where we usually lose connectivity. Voice calls were another highlight. The 820 processor also delivers great performance, making the Mi 5 capable of playing any game or taking on any processing task with ease. For our purposes, the most important part of that is simply the phone’s responsiveness, which is generally fast and hard to criticize.
Beyond fit and finish, which even on our replacement Mi 5 isn’t quite as perfect and refined as on Samsung’s new Galaxy devices, the one aspect that betrays the Mi 5’s budget price is its camera. Let us be clear: this phone’s camera is not bad, but neither is it as great as its specs would suggest. Featuring four-axis stabilization, deep trench isolation (to prevent colors from bleeding into one another), phase-detect autofocus, and Sony’s latest 16-megapixel sensor, it’s supposed to be a “true flagship camera,” but it rather left us underwhelmed.
Sharpness and color accuracy are both lacking, even in well illuminated images. Xiaomi relies on Qualcomm’s image-processing engine — which happens to be exact area where companies like Apple, Samsung, and LG pour in their biggest investments to improve — and that holds it back.
On the plus side, low-light images don’t exhibit as much degradation as most other cameras, suggesting that the Mi 5’s sensor is indeed a good one, and the camera’s speed and performance are very good. We are also impressed by the video stabilization of this handset, and it happens to have one of the better selfie cameras on the market right now.
Unlike pure hardware vendors like Samsung, who might consider their relationship with the customer concluded at the point of sale and getting a proper service for its Flagship model is a tough business, Xiaomi has a direct business interest in keeping its users happy long after the initial device sale. Remember where its money is made.
As to MIUI itself, it’s an Android skin that predates Xiaomi’s hardware business and there’s good reason for why it has endured as long as it has. People like it because it’s relatively clean and simple, plus it’s now built up a respectable library of themes and customizations. This is the first Android skin where we actually found a theme and a visual style that we enjoy more than the Android default. It’s not because it’s necessarily better, but it’s pretty and adds a refreshing bit of diversity.
Xiaomi has a couple of other handy tricks up its software sleeve that we found really useful. One is a built-in call recording option that we think every phone should have. It’s unbelievably convenient, whether you’re conducting a phone interview or just keen to document a Comcast customer support call. The other big thing is granular app management, allowing you to select which apps can show what notifications, which apps can work in the background, and which apps can use roaming data. It’s almost PC-like in the depth of detail and control it provides, which means it won’t be for everyone, but those who want to get a firm grasp on their Android experience will appreciate these options in a big way.
It doesn’t end there, as Xiaomi’s software throws up helpful tips like letting us know that the phone will still turn on for the alarm if we are trying to power it down, or offering us the option to turn off just the next instance of my recurring alarm. Small touches, but they build toward a better experience overall. The only annoyance that we found was the lack of an option to directly delete or otherwise interact with emails from the notifications menu — that’s something we make regular use of on other Android devices. As a whole, though, the combination of Xiaomi’s intelligent additions and the Snapdragon 820’s brilliant speed and responsiveness make this a fun and enjoyable phone to use.
Last, but certainly not least, on the Mi 5’s list of strengths is this phone’s battery life. The 3,000mAh battery inside is claimed by the company to have the highest density in any consumer device yet, and it’s married to new display backlight technology that makes the Mi 5’s screen as much as 17 percent more efficient than previous generations. Those attributes are helped by the Snapdragon 820’s efficiency — this new chip exhibits none of the overheating and power consumption flaws that plagued last year’s 810 — and Android Marshmallow’s Doze mode for powering down the phone’s radios when not in active use. The result is a phone that causes us no anxiety about being away from a charger. From the start of a busy day until late in the evening, it consumed roughly a third of the Mi 5’s battery, and it takes us as much as 22 hours to go through half of it. One day’s use is easy, and two days aren’t out of the question with some judicious power management.
The Mi 5 drags premium performance and features down into an even lower price tier. Its arrival is bad news for Xiaomi’s competitors but good news for consumers. This is as much smartphone as almost anyone will need, and for its price, we are willing to forgive a couple of understandable shortcomings.