Very different in many ways from previous review hardware here on Android Beat, the Xiaomi Mi Note Pro hails, of course, from China, but is shipped globally if requested. In fact, it’s customised to a degree for the ‘rest of us’ since the natively ‘banned’ Google Play Store is added, enabling smartphone users across the world to buy, load up and enjoy. The Mi Note Pro isn’t a unique form factor, but it has enough Unique Selling Points that this (quite literally) slippery flagship is worthy of closer attention.
Let’s tackle the ‘slippery’ bit first. I have to call out Xiaomi – and, to be fair, Samsung and others, for this modern trend of slippery, curved, smooth glass everywhere. Quite the worst of its kind though, the Mi Note slides off almost every firm (and apparently level) surface I’ve tried it on, it almost needs its own velvet cushion! There is no way I’d ever use this phone without some kind of TPU-style case – ditto the Galaxy S6 (to be fair) – in which case what on earth is the point in all the slippery glass in modern designs in the first place? It’s a marketing trick that users pay through the nose for and rarely get to enjoy out and about in real life.
Rant over though. What we have here – and it’s my first experience of any Xiaomi hardware – is a very powerful, very fast, no frills Android smartphone. It does nothing whatsoever better than other flagships, but it’s a pretty good all rounder, coming in just over £400 when imported into the UK. Natural competitors? Well, the imminent OnePlus Two springs to mind. Plus the Samsung Galaxy Note 4, of course, around the same end price, brand new and with similar specs.
One initial hurdle turns out not to be a hurdle at all. Assuming you’ve managed to buy one of these and have it shipped to your country – which is relatively easy, it seems, if you don’t mind a week or so’s shipping delay. You see, Google’s Play Store and indeed all Google apps are apparently banned in China, so Xiaomi currently just ships devices destined for global use with a special developer ROM with a side-loaded installation of the Play Store client, so that users outside of China can sign in and grab all their usual dependables. Of which more below.
In practice, a few minutes downloading in the Play Store and I had all my usual applications on hand. In fact, closer than usual, since everything appears – and only appears – on the homescreens. Yes, Huawei-style, there’s no application drawer in Xiaomi’s ‘MIUI’ skin, but yet again I rather like the simplicity of this idea and prefer it to playing the ‘oh darn, where’s my app?’ game on other devices.
The Mi Note Pro is something of a mash-up of ideas and designs we’ve seen many times before – there’s Samsung’s capacitive button layout – with ‘Back’ on the right (ugh!), plus the Note 4’s form factor and metal frame; while the overall homescreen UI, the multitasking carousel, plus the camera and flash layout and design, are all very iPhone-esque.
On the left side is an unusual double SIM tray, one with microSIM and one slot for nanoSIM, which is great if you hate finding adapters, like me, or perhaps if you wanted to use two SIMs at the same time. LTE, i.e. 4G, was no problem for me on the Mi Note Pro in the UK, but the frequencies here may not work fully in the USA and a few other regions, so do check the specs before buying.
The 5.7” LCD QHD screen is bright, crisp and colourful, though I found I had to have the Auto slider set all the way up to maximum most of the time, in order to look ‘satisfying’. In theory, there’s hardware-level pixel adjustment in sunlight, to aid contrast – and I could see this working – but without circular polarisers the overall visibility outdoors was still a long way behind my old Nokias with ClearBlack Display (e.g. the Lumia 1520 shown below, right) and I found it hard seeing what I was doing when mobile in the full sun. Not that we get that much sun in the UK, but most of the rest of the world might be in trouble here, albeit no more than other competing devices.
On the bottom are a slightly misleading jack which looks a little like USB-C in that you can’t tell which way round it operates, but turns out to be regular old microUSB.
The mono speaker here is pretty loud, but nowhere near the best in the smartphone world – think HTC One M8 and Nexus 6, for example. Headphone output, via the 3.5mm jack on the top here, is excellent, Xiaomi take their wired audio very seriously.
The 13MP camera with f/2.0 aperture and OIS is excellent in all but the usual low light-moving subject conditions. See the samples and crops here for an idea of quality. It doesn’t match the LG G4, the current all round champion, but it’s not a million miles off.
By default, everything’s in Auto-HDR mode, which can cause sunny shots to be more ‘dramatic’ than they need to be, but it’s easy to turn HDR off if you want a slightly more natural look. Detail is good and processing within acceptable limits. Here are some sample snaps, in each case with a 1:1 crop to show the intense detail:
In low light, the OIS helps a lot, plus there’s a special multi-shot night mode which works wonders, as seen below. Again, moving objects will be an issue, but it’s nice to have in your toolbox.
One unique UI element is being able to tap to focus and then rotate around the focus point, using your fingertip, to fine tune the exposure – this works brilliantly and is sure to be copied by others!
Video is 1080p by default and at a 4K maximum, though there’s no way to grab 8MP stills from this using the built-in software. But it’s absolutely not a problem because the burst mode for stills is so fast, rated at 20 photos per second, thanks to the powerful internals in the Mi Note Pro. So in the event of a kids sports day or a dog jumping, or whatever, you just hold down the capture icon and grab 50 or 60 photos at the right time with almost no gap between them and at a video-like frame rate. Job done.
On the software side, it’s enough to get set up with a typical set of Android applications, though the Xiaomi-written alternatives also cover the basics of browsing, calendar, email, and so on, albeit synced to your Mi Cloud account and not to Google, until you’ve signed in to the latter, at least. It’s also a little galling to effectively have duplicates littered around your homescreen, necessitating a ‘trash’ style folder of all the bits you won’t be using. Ah well.
Also worth noting is that, because of the China source and the current need to ship with a developer firmware, in order to get the Play Store up and running, the Mi Note Pro is provisioned with debugging and unknown source permissions both turned on – something I only realised when playing with Xiaomi’s supplied ‘security audit’ utility – users need to be absolutely sure to close these ‘holes’, as I quickly did. Apparently, Xiaomi will soon start shipping the Mi Note Pro with a proper global firmware that includes Google and is also locked down better. Phew!
The theme engine is a nice idea, but the theme store was very flaky and slow for me, plus the novelty of making your Android smartphone look even more like an iPhone soon wears off. Though there’s still mileage in setting it all up and then telling friends you have the new iPhone 7 (oh, the fun to be had!) There are hundreds, if not thousands of themes to choose from, so you can knock yourself out, anyway.
A novel swipe across the capacitive keys gives this one-handed mode – you can even choose from three different sizes, though if you have to use this very much then what was the point of plumping for the Mi Note series in the first place?
Performance and battery life
In use, the Mi Note Pro was very fast, thanks to the Snapdragon 810, though the trademark heat issues were noticeable. Even just exploring the user interface, I could feel the device getting warm. After shooting half a dozen photos it was definitely up beyond body temperature. I think Google was right to stick to the 805 for its Nexus 6, though the dissipating ability of the metal chassis here means that the processor should never physically overheat.
The QHD screen and the hot processor do have an impact on battery life, with the 3000mAh sealed cell just about lasting a full day with careful use. Play a few too many games or shoot too much video though, and you’ll be charging before tea-time. I did like that the battery settings panes allowed the breakdown of where the power’s going by either ‘application’ or by ‘hardware’, so you really can look at this critical aspect of the smartphone from either point of view.
My wife says the Mi Note Pro would look great when sliding it out of a handbag and there’s definitely something feminine about the device, helped here by the white finish with shiny gold edging (it’s also available in black, of course). The Mi Note Pro is elegant, it’s smooth… and it’s over £200 cheaper than the Galaxy S6 Edge (at least, here in the UK)!
At the end of the day, I can’t see many AndroidBeat readers opting to import one of these, though. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the Mi Note Pro, in some ways it’s an Android powerhouse. But at the same time, you can get more functions, more flexibility, more familiarity, and more manufacturer and retailer support from a vanilla Galaxy Note 4 for roughly the same outlay, now at summer 2015 pricing in most of the world.
Of course, Xiaomi do other (cheaper) MIUI models, plus there’s every chance that the company may open up a distribution chain in the bigger markets, which will help get the phones in more peoples’ hands outside China.
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PS. Thanks to Gavin Fabiani-Laymond for one of the photo examples above and his help in assessing the Mi Note Pro.