What is the Xiaomi Mi3?

Sometimes smartphones can seem a bit boring. Every year, the same companies make the same _phone_ but with a few tweaks, a bigger screen and a new name. Phones like the Xiaomi Mi3 are here to shake things up.

The Xiaomi Mi3 isn’t available in the UK yet aside from as an import, but Chinese companies like Xiaomi and OnePlus have a chance at changing the face of the _phone_ market. Of course, that’s all stuff for the future.

We got out hands on one of Xiaomi's phones right now to see whether this £200-odd wonder is really worth considering as an import alternative to something like the Nexus 5, or even Samsung Galaxy S5.
 
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Xiaomi Mi3: Design

Chinese phones are infamous for nicking the looks of other better-known models. There are more Samsung Galaxy knock-offs over there than you could count. But the Xiaomi Mi3 is different, it has a look all of its own.

Granted, there are shades of the Nokia Lumia series to its curved sides, but the Xiaomi Mi3 has a distinctive look that proves surprisingly recognisable for something most of us have never heard of. The back, bottom and top edges are all completely flat, but the semi-circle curved sides give the phone quite a nice, soft feel in-hand.

First impressions of the Xiaomi Mi3 suggest it’s ‘just’ a high-end plastic phone – again, in the Nokia mould. But it’s not. This is a magnesium alloy phone, and it is one of the first to use magnesium as its outer layer rather an inner casing. To be specific, the outer part of the Mi3 is a magnesium-aluminium alloy with three layers of graphite on top.

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Xiaomi Mi3


This gives a slightly soft feel that’s less hard and cold than standard aluminium. As a result it is also not going to impress you with how expensive it feels on first touch. While technologically superior – magnesium is lighter and stronger than aluminium – this is one of the reasons why phone-makers tend to favour aluminium.

Leave the magnesium shell a while to bed in and you really start to appreciate how well-made the Xiaomi Mi3 feels. The shell is much more rigid than plastic, giving the phone a higher-end feel than phones like the LG G3 or Samsung Galaxy S5. Both are more expensive than the Xiaomi Mi3 too.

There are nice little design touches too. The buttons have a nice crisp action with a high-quality feel, and they’re placed on the side (rather than the top) for easy access.

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There are plenty of things to be improved, though. There’s no microSD memory card slot, and with just 16GB of storage in the standard version, you only have about 11GB to use for music, pictures and such. You can get a 64GB version, but it costs a fair bit more.

The Xiaomi Mi3 also uses the big ‘full-size’ SIM, which slots into the phone on a tray that seems the size of a dinner plate when you’re used to microSIMs and nanoSIMs. Full-size SIMs are still used commonly in China, but are all-but extinct here unless you’re looking at phones that only cost as much as a pub lunch.

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The curvy-sided design affects the width of the Xiaomi MI3, which is perhaps the dimension you need to worry about most when considering if a mobile will be too big for your hands.

The Xiaomi Mi3 is a millimetre wider than the Galaxy S5, and that phone has a slightly larger screen. However, as the Xiaomi Mi3 is just 8.1mm thick and otherwise pretty sound ergonomically, it’s really a design choice rather than a design issue.

Using magnesium also helps with weight. The Xiaomi Mi3 is just 148g according to our measurements, making it roughly the same weight as the Galaxy S5, and a good bit lighter than the HTC One M8 or Nokia Lumia 930. Of course, it’s very easy to overemphasise how important weight is when we’re talking about phones that are all pretty light given how big they are. Having one in your pocket isn’t exactly going to tire you out by the end of the working day.

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Xiaomi Mi3: Features

When dealing with a phone that’s essentially designed for a market other than your own, it’s important to check there aren’t missing features you’ll need. The Xiaomi Mi3 has most, apart from one – 4G.

As we’re starting to see 4G implemented in phones at all levels in the UK, from the £80 Alcatel One Touch Pop S3 up, it’s a bit disappointing to see the Xiaomi Mi3 top out at 3G. The one other obvious missing bit is an IR transmitter, although it still has NFC, GPS, Wi-Fi and an MHL-compliant USB port.

Xiaomi Mi3: Screen

The Xiaomi Mi3 has a display that can – for the most part – compete with its much better-known rivals. It’s a 5-inch LCD screen of 1080p resolution.

You don’t get the ridiculously high QHD resolution seen in the LG G3, but then we’re not entirely convinced it’s necessary in a 5-inch display. In most respects, the Xiaomi Mi3 screen is great. Colour, top brightness and outdoors visibility are all up there with the best. It's bright and vivid, but colours aren't oversaturated to the extent that people's faces in videos or pictures look unrealistic.

The Samsung Galaxy S5 is better outdoors and offers better black levels, but among IPS LCD phones the Mi3 is a top contender.

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The one issue we have is something often seen in screens where QA isn’t water-tight – panel uniformity. Down at the bottom of the display there’s a greyer/darker area that’s not as well-served by the Xiaomi Mi3’s backlight LEDs, and there's a short brighter strip up at the top where those LEDs sit. However, the effect is fairly minor, and only something nit-pickers will notice. It’s just not perfect.

Other occasionally problematic elements are all fine – the automatic brightness setting is reliable and smooth, where it can be erratic in very budget-conscious phones. The Xiaomi Mi3's is a screen that doesn’t seem to have been made on the cheap. And that’s one of the most important things for any phone trying to break into the big time.

The front of the Xiaomi Mi3 is covered with Gorilla Glass 3, the very same kind of toughened glass used by the Galaxy S5 and most other mid-range and high-end Androids. It’s very scratch-resistant, and doesn’t flex under any kind of normal pressure from your finger. This is again an element Chinese ‘knock-off’ phones tend to sacrifice.

Xiaomi Mi3: Software and Android

The most controversial element of the Xiaomi Mi3 is its software. It runs Android 4.3, which itself is out-of-date, and uses a heavily customised interface that replaces all of the Google apps suite with Chinese alternatives. As takeovers go, it’s pretty hostile.

Google Play is replaced by Mi Market, Hangouts with Mi Talk, Weibo becomes your default search engine and the email client has a completely different look to the standard Google Mail one. Even if your language is selected as English, the keyboard will routinely suggest Chinese words with its autocorrect function too.

There’s no mistaking the Xiaomi Mi3 for anything but a Chinese phone fresh out of the box. And as such it’s pretty difficult to use.
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There are workarounds to get Google Play and the rest of the Google apps suite installed, but it does require a bit of research, and we needed to try it a few times to get everything working. This is certainly not an Android phone for western beginners.

The Xiaomi Mi3 also makes significant changes to the workings of Android, much like (the also Chinese) Huawei’s phones do. We’re not big fans of Huawei’s custom Android interface, and the same is largely true here.

Xiaomi has scrapped the discrete apps menu in favour of lumping everything onto your home screens. Some call Xiaomi the Apple of China, and this sort of move does nothing to dissuade such comparisons. Of course, this sort of single-plane approach to the OS works much better with iOS 7 than it does with Android, and we found the Xiaomi Mi3 a little awkward to operate compared with more ordinary Androids.

However, it does not seem to be a particularly burdensome interface. Where the Huawei Ascend P7 is weighed down by its slightly wonky China-style interface, causing basic performance issues, the Xiaomi Mi3 is actually pretty quick.

It just needs a lot of tweaking. Replacing the core apps, the keyboard and filtering away all the Chinese-only stuff into a Room 101 folder takes a bit of effort.

There are some little extras you get with the Xiaomi Mi3’s custom interface not seen everywhere, though. You can, for example, choose what colour the notification LED is and change what the battery icon looks like – little customisations similar to those seen in the OnePlus One.

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Xiaomi Mi3: Apps, Games and Performance

The phone’s hardware is a lot less contentious than its software. The Xiaomi Mi3 uses the Snapdragon 800 processor and 2GB of RAM. It’s a quad-core 2.3GHz chip. Each of these specs is slightly off the very top rung in phones, but the difference is largely inconsequential in terms of what it’ll mean in real life for most people.

Some phones have 3GB of RAM and the newer Snapdragon 801 chipset, but there are no truly tangible benefits we’ve noticed when software optimisation plays so important a part in a phone’s performance.

That said, the Xiaomi Mi3 performed superbly in our usual benchmarks – ridiculously well if anything. In Geekbench 3, the top score we recorded was 3030. That’s higher than any Snapdragon 800 phone we’ve tested, besting several Snapdragon 801 ones too. It's probably down to benchmark cheating. But it does give you an idea of how powerful the phone is.

There are definite benefits to having a processor with as popular a GPU as the Xiaomi Mi3’s Adreno 330, though. Top-end games benefit from extra graphical effect you don’t get from a lesser GPU, or even a lesser-used one. It’ll generally mean more reflections, more lighting effects in the top-tier 3D titles. In Dead Trigger 2, for example, just about everything is shiny – even dirty old bits of corrugated metal.

Gaming is excellent on the Xiaomi Mi3 too. The large, sharp, vibrant screen is perfect for games, and performance is great. The only real limitation is internal storage – real gaming fiends should look into the more expensive 64GB model as the 10GB or so you get free with the 16GB entry-level model will soon be eaten up.

Xiaomi Mi3: Camera

Just as the Xiaomi Mi3 doesn’t quite have the top-top-tier processor among Androids, its camera sensor is one generation older than that seen in the most expensive phones. It uses the Sony IMX135 sensor, a 13-megapixel 1/3.06-inch chip.

That’s exactly the same one used by the LG G2, a phone this is an obvious rival to. Both cater for people looking for a high-end Android phone that doesn’t cost the earth.

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Camera performance often relies as much on software as hardware, though. All you miss out that’s concrete is 4K capture and HDR in video. If these matter to you, it’s worth investigating the OnePlus One. It’s an obvious comparison as a very aggressively-priced Chinese smartphone, and as it uses the newer IMX214 sensor, it supports 4K video and HDR video as standard. No such luck here.

There are also a few practical issues. The autofocus is a little slow, and somewhat unreliable. The Xiaomi Mi3 is a little too happy to take photos when the image isn’t remotely in focus, and it doesn’t seem to be as good at starting off its focus from as close a position as other top Androids. The final optimisations seem to have been left out.

The Xiaomi Mi3 camera app could do with a bit of work too. At first glance it seems fine – there’s nothing too confusing and the layout isn’t too odd. However, the way the modes work is plain weird. When you engage HDR mode, for example, you don’t switch it off by pressing the HDR button again, but by pressing a ‘close HDR mode’ prompt on-screen. And it didn’t always seem to appear.

Once again, it’s the software that lets the Xiaomi Mi3 down a little.

Camera app


If you learn to tame the autofocus and decipher exactly how to use the camera app, the Xiaomi Mi3 can produce some decent photos. However, we did find that they often benefit from some post-processing work.

The Xiaomi Mi3 camera tends to value contrast over dynamic range. High contrast offers a punchy look but it can oddly leave the phone’s shots looking both overexposed and underexposed in parts of the same photo. Quite frequently we saw photos with crushed black details and blown out highlights in the one photo, while the picture’s shadow areas gave it the slightly dull look of a generally undersaturated photo.

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High in contrast and plenty of pop, but the trees are left too dark

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There's a good amount of detail here, but the metering approach has left the foreground a bit dark

Xiaomi Mi3


Photos tend to be pretty well-saturated in terms of colour, though. They often teeter on the verge of becoming oversaturated, in fact.

The colour saturation becomes more of an issue in the HDR mode, which jazzes-up colours to the extent that they skip straight into Wonderland. Of course, if you’re using your phone to post photos online, perhaps a bit of colour oversaturation is no real problem.

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Here we see the three characters of Mi3 photo - not in focus, oversaturated, and pretty OK

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Here's a good example of the Mi3 HDR mode's radioactive colours


We’re slightly disappointed by the Xiamo Mi3’s HDR mode in general, though. As well as giving an artificial look to colours, it isn’t tremendously effective (it its still quite effective, though) and creates the sort of halo effects that mark a somewhat unsophisticated attempt at HDR. We’ve been spoilt by the Galaxy S5 here, which offers fantastic HDR results without too many of the tell-tale signs of HDR (aside from your photos having that slightly magical edge).

Producing natural-looking photos is not the Xiaomi Mi3’s forte, HDR mode or no.

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The halo effect around the building is something HDR modes should look to avoid

Levels of detail are generally good, though. It may not be a stellar 13-megapixel camera, but it still has decent hardware at its core – it just hasn’t been handled all that well.

Noise is much more evident than it is in something like the Samsung Galaxy S5, but this isn’t necessarily down to using a slightly older sensor– the Huawei Ascend P7 uses the newer IMX214 and doesn’t try to to eradicate all noise.

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The Mi3 doesn't ramp up brightess enough in darker parts of an image to shoot in low light

Take the ambient light level down and we start to see once again how little optimisation has really done in the Xiaomi Mi3’s camera engine compared with the Android competition. The exposure level doesn’t naturally bump up brightness/exposure levels to compensate for night-time or dusk conditions, so your photos will look very dark (though in some ways this is desirable). At night time you might as well not bother if your subject isn’t close enough to make use of the dual-LED flash.

There's also a decent 2-megapixel front-facing camera that, rather terrifyingly, guesses your age and gender as part of its face detection processing. It's sorta fun, in a this-is-clearly-all-going-to-end-in-tears way.

Xiaomi Mi3: Battery Life

Despite being pretty thin, the Xiaomi Mi3 still packs in a pretty decent 3,050mAh battery. For a bit of context, that’s 250mAh more than the Galaxy S5 and a massive 450mAh more than the HTC One M8.

While battery stamina in our rolling 720p MP4 video test wasn’t quite as good as the Sony Xperia Z2, the Xiaomi Mi3 still managed a thoroughly respectable 11 hours of playback. It's up there with the best 5-inchers.

The phone also has much of the same core power optimisation as the latest Android phones, as energy efficiency of the Snapdragon 800 processor is the same as it is in the latest Snapdragon 801 CPU.

Using the normal ‘balanced’ power mode, we were easily able to get a solid day and a half’s use out of the Xiaomi Mi3. Until we get to the next generation of mobile power/efficiency, we’ll be happy with this sort of result. Light users should be able to eke out a full two days' use.

Battery graph

There are also two other power modes – high performance and battery saving. With no particular drawbacks to the balanced mode, and seemingly no CPU throttling, we don’t think there’s much reason to use high performance.

Even the battery saving mode doesn’t seem all that drastic, though. There’s nothing at the level of the extreme battery-saving modes of phones like the Sony Xperia Z2. But we’re still pretty happy with the battery performance on offer here.


Xiaomi Mi3: Call and Sound Quality

The Xiaomi Mi3 has a mono speaker that fires out of the bottom of the phone. It’s not a particularly good speaker, lacking the extra power and – in some cases – stereo effect you get with phones like the HTC One M8, Sony Xperia Z2 and LG G3.

Top volume isn't particularly ambitious, which at least means the sound doesn’t distort horribly, but the tone is quite thin. It’s not abrasive, so at least we wouldn’t actively avoid using it. But it’s not particularly great either.

We had no isses with call quality in the Xiaomi Mi3 – once again it's a middle-tier performer here. There are no obvious missing bits, though, with a secondary mic used for active noise cancellation.


Should I buy the Xiaomi Mi3?

The Xiaomi Mi3 is a great-looking, well-made phone with great hardware that isn’t always made the most of by the software, at least if you're westerner importing it. This is a phone designed for a Chinese audience, and just about every part of its interface is designed for that crowd. We are strangers to it.

While we love the magnesium body, and think the Xiaomi Mi3 offers very good display quality for £200, there's just a bit too much work required to make the phone easy to use in the UK. By all means wait for Xiaomi to come to the UK, but you may have quite the wait on your hands.

Given the amount of tweaking you have to do here, most will be better off with a Nexus 5 or an LG G2, both of which are excellent and offer the 4G connectivity you miss out on here. Want to try out a Chinese phone? The OnePlus One is a better bet, if you can find a way to get hold of one. The Xiaomi Mi3 may not quite earn our full recommendation, but it's an encouraging sign for the future of Xiaomi as a potential major phone brand.

Verdict

The Xiaomi Mi3 is a bright sign of things to come from plucky Chinese phone-makers. However, there’s a bit too much work needed to make an imported Mi3 easy to use in the UK for our tastes.

Next, read our Best Mobile Phones round-up