What is the Xiaomi Mi4?Imitation is touchy topic in tech circles, but few manufacturers are as slavish as Chinese company Xiaomi. Branded by many as "The Chinese Apple", Xiaomi has adopted many of its rival's tactics with great success.
The Xiaomi Mi4 is possibly the most unashamed copycat _phone_ you'll ever lay eyes on. It looks almost exactly like an iPhone 5 or iPhone 5S. But despite the flagrant plagiarism on show, the Mi4 is arguably one of the best Android devices of 2014. It manages to combine incredible power with impeccable build quality and excellent software, and all for around £250.
Price as reviewed is based on import prices but does not include shipping or any additional import duties. Sample kindly supplied by Efox.
The chamfered edges are very Apple-esque
Xiaomi Mi4: DesignThere really is no getting around it: the Mi4 looks like an iPhone. But if you're going to emulate another product, you might as well pick the one that looks best. The Mi4's metal chassis exudes a premium feel that is all-too-often missing from Android phones, and the entire device boasts the kind of build quality that most pre-Galaxy Alpha Samsung owners can only dream of.
The back of the _phone_ is where Xiaomi has deviated slightly from the Apple template as it has a convex plastic panel and a centrally-aligned camera. The back of the handset can actually be removed — using a suction cup, we kid you not — and replaced with another to give your Mi4 a more unique feel.
Despite the 5-inch screen, the Mi4 feels thin and tall, just like the iPhone. This is largely thanks to the very narrow bezels either side of the display, which give an almost edge-to-edge screen, at least horizontally. At 8.9mm, the Mi4 is impressively svelte, but the aforementioned bulge on the rear panel makes it feel a little fatter than it actually is.
The sides of the phone showcase the Micro SIM slot, volume key and power button. Compared to most Android devices, the placement of these buttons is switched — the power key resides below the volume rocker. This takes some getting used to, and we found that we often hit the power button by accident when removing the handset from our pocket or when making a call. Along the top edge of the Mi4 is the 3.5mm headphone socket and the IR blaster, which can be used to control your television set, amongst other things.
SEE ALSO: Xiaomi Mi3 review
The rear cover is plastic
The bottom edge has a grille for the single speaker and a MicroUSB slot for charging and data transfer. Strangely, Xiaomi has opted for the little-seen MicroUSB-A standard, which boasts a square-shaped connector. You can still use the more common MicroUSB-B lead, but because of the shape of the port there's the danger that you could insert the cable the wrong way around and damage the connection. Needless to say, caution should be taken when trying to top up your battery late at night when you've had one too many naughty beverages.
Below the screen you'll find three touch-sensitive buttons, but with a difference. Unlike most modern Android devices — which have Home, Back and Recent Apps commends — the Mi4 reverts back to the pre-Android 4.0 arrangement of Home, Back and Menu. That means to access the Recent Apps menu — which shows all of your active applications — you'll have to long-press the Home button. It's hardly an elegant solution, but one that you can easily become accustomed to.
The Mi4 comes in two storage flavours — 16GB and 64GB. We're reviewing the former, and when you take into account all of the software that comes pre-loaded which you can't uninstall, the end user has about 11GB to play with. Sadly, like its forerunner the Mi3, the Mi4 lacks a microSD card slot so you can't augment that total with cheap flash media. However, the Mi4 does go one better than the Mi3 by finally moving to the now-ubiquitous Micro SIM standard.
SEE ALSO: Best Android Phones Round-up
The bottom edge — note the odd size USB connection
Xiaomi Mi4: FeaturesXiaomi has taken the decision to launch the Mi4 in two basic configurations. The first — which is the one we're reviewing — only supports 3G. A revised model with support for 4G networks is expected any day now, but that hasn't stopped the 3G-only model selling like hot cakes in its native China.
A top of the line smartphone that lacks 4G is rather strange in 2014, and if you're thinking of ordering a Mi4 from abroad you'll almost certainly want to take this into account - especially if you're already signed up to an expensive 4G contract in the UK. For the record, the 3G model works flawlessly on UK networks - we didn't experience any issues with signal strength or reception quality.
Elsewhere the Mi4 has dual-band 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac Wi-Fi, an IR blaster, GPS and DLNA support, but it lacks an NFC chip — something which was present in the Mi3. According to Xiaomi CEO Lei Jun, only one percent of existing Mi3 users actually make use of the contactless tech, and the feature was removed from the Mi4 to keep costs low.
While NFC is still clearly in its infancy, it could well take off in 2015 — especially now that Apple has put it into the iPhone 6. Not having NFC could be a real drawback for Mi4 owners moving forwards.
Xiaomi Mi4: ScreenLike the Mi3, the Mi4 has a 5-inch LCD display with a 1080p full HD resolution. Unlike some of its Android competitors, this phone hasn't stepped into the finger-stretching realms of super-sized screens. This is still a roomy display, but it's a little more manageable than devices like the OnePlus One and LG G3, each of which boasts a 5.5-inch panel that gives your thumbs a serious workout.
The IPS display doesn't quite have the pop of the Samsung Galaxy S5's AMOLED panel, but it's still bright, punchy and easy to view at any angle. It's also easy to view in direct sunlight, and the 1080p resolution ensures that individual pixels can't be seen unless you bring out the magnifying glass.
Xiaomi has included the option to tinker with the colour levels using an app that is baked into the MIUI operating system. You can toggle between different presets to get the look you want, but if we're brutally honest the default configuration is probably the best. Still, it's nice to at last have the option.
Xiaomi Mi4: SoftwareThe Xiaomi Mi4 is rocking MIUI v5, a heavily customized — and surprisingly nippy — version of Android 4.4.2 that comes with a wide range of differences, the most striking of which is the fact that there's no app drawer. All of your apps are laid out on the home screen and you can arrangement them in various folders to keep things tidy, just like iOS. However, you can still use active widgets to liven things up a little.
Although it's running Android, there's a distinct lack of Google action in terms of preinstalled applications. Core apps like Google Mail, Google Calendar and Google Docs are all absent, and most units sold in China don't even come with the Google Play Market installed — you have to access all of your content via Xiaomi's own Mi Market instead.
SEE ALSO: Android 4.4 tips and tricks
Units sold outside of China by resellers often come with software modifications, and Mi4 we reviewed had Google's digital storefront pre-loaded, as well as two other download portals called MoboMarket and Mobogenie — both of which boast all of the essential Android apps.
It's clear that Xiaomi wants you to use its own services rather than Google's, and there's a very good reason for this — the company essentially sells its hardware at cost and makes a large amount of its revenue from digital purchases. MIUI grants access to a wide range of consumable content, including ringtones, themes, music and other applications. While it's possible to sign up for a Mi Account outside of China, the Mi Market is almost entirely in Chinese and unless you're a native speaker, navigating it is a matter of trial and error.
While the Mi4 comes with its own apps for activities such as email, photography, gallery viewing and even cloud storage, it's possible to replace pretty much all of these with your own choices thanks to a "Default App" selection menu, be they Google-based or otherwise. While it's not possible to totally westernise the phone — you'll still be pushed towards Xiaomi's own services from time to time — with a little bit of effort you can get the Mi4 performing more in line with Google's vision.
Even so, there are still some issues here. We noticed that on our review unit, we couldn't get the official YouTube application to load at all, regardless of which source we downloaded it from. Also, we weren't able to download applications from any of the app stores until we trawled the settings menu and discovered that the phone has a default limit of 500kb for downloads when not connected to a Wi-Fi hotspot. Thankfully this barrier can be lifted or removed altogether, but it caused us some serious brow-furrowing for a few hours as we tried to fathom why this cutting-edge piece of Android hardware steadfastly refused to install any applications.
Xiaomi Mi4: PerformanceWith a quad-core 2.5GHz Snapdragon 801 chipset on board and 3GB of RAM to keep things ticking over, it should come as no great surprise to learn that the Mi4 is a blisteringly swift piece of tech.
All of the benchmark tests we ran returned top-line results. The Mi4 achieved a score of 24,038 on Quadrant Standard and 43,615 on AnTuTu Benchmark —- eclipsing the likes of the Galaxy S5 and Nexus 5 with ease. 3DMark's Ice Storm Unlimited test — designed to investigate the graphical potential of smartphone hardware - delivered a result of 19,595, which is behind the Tegra K1-powered Nvidia Shield Tablet but still a very respectable score.
Gaming on the Mi4 is a joy thanks to the robust tech that lies in that thin, premium-feel casing. Not only do the latest 3D titles like Asphalt 8: Airborne and Dead Trigger 2 run at an impressive pace, they post striking detail, something which is all the more obvious thanks to that lush 5-inch, 1080p screen.
While Xiaomi has clearly built a very fast version of Android with MIUI v5, it's obvious that the powerful CPU and large reserve of RAM help keep the experience silky-smooth. Even when the Mi4 is performing multiple tasks in the background, there's rarely any stuffer or jerkiness. Compared to the custom skins seen on Samsung, Sony and LG's products, this is an incredibly polished and pleasant UI offering.
Xiaomi Mi4: CameraXiaomi has always been very open about where it sources its parts, and even lists the Mi4's camera as the Sony's Exmor IMX214 on specification sheets. It's a 13 megapixel variant that’s supported by an LED flash for low-light shooting.
This shot contains good detail but it's not quite as sharp towards the edges, showing some noticeable noise that lets the Mi4 down a little in low-light shots.
Like so many mobile phone cameras, it only really shines when taking shots in well-lit environments. Indoor photography is plagued by the usual problems such as washed-out colour, fuzzy detail and an aggressive flash which over-saturates images with light.
The Mi4's custom camera software comes with a range of features, including HDR, burst shooting and panoramic capabilities. It also allows you to lock the focus of the sensor by dragging a box over an object.
This feature works well in practice and is handy when you're taking close-up images of fidgeting offspring, but it's less successful when dealing with fast-moving targets.
The Mi4 captures excellent detail in this shot (Full-res shots available in the gallery)
If you'd rather go for something a little similar you can switch the default camera application to Google's own, which is available for download on the Google Play market. While this is lacking in features when compared to the Mi4's native software, it's somewhat easier to use and might be preferable for those who want to simply "fire and forget" when it comes to photography.
Being able to swop out core apps for your own choices is one of the most appealing aspects of Xiaomi's MiUI software.
This shot shows some problems. It struggles with the exposure of the clouds and there's a slightly odd, magenta hue to some clouds.
Overall, while it falls short of the iPhone it imitates and other top-end phones, this is a very good camera for the price. The fact it shoots 4K video is a nice though probably unnecessary bonus, but the 8-megapixel front-facing camera is a very handy addition. Anyone who takes seflies often, or video calls, will appreciate the extra detail it captures.
Xiaomi Mi4: Battery LifeBeating at the heart of the Mi4 is a 3,080mAh power cell, which in theory should give the handset a shade more stamina than phones like Samsung Galaxy S5 (2,800mAh) or LG G3 (3,000mAh). While the complexities of mobile hardware mean that more capacity doesn't necessarily mean longer battery life, the Mi4 was able to last well over a day on a single charge, which is something which cannot always be said for many other Android smartphones.
There are two power modes on offer here, the first of which is named "Balanced" and is the default choice. Switching to "High Performance" yields more impressive results, but predictably at the cost of stamina. To be fair, the Mi4 is so swift that even when set to Balanced mode it remains responsive and amazingly fast.
While you can remove the back panel of the phone and gaze longingly upon the Mi4's battery, it's not removable by the end user, so you can't replace it or carry a spare around with you.
Xiaomi Mi4: Call and Sound QualityLike the Mi3, this successor has a single speaker positioned on the bottom of the device. You don't get the deep stereo sound witnessed on the likes of the HTC One M8, but the overall volume is impressive. The speaker won’t cause you to miss a call or text message, even when in a noisy, crowded environment.
During calls, the Mi4 performed admirably. We were able to hear the caller without any issues, and thanks to a second, noise-cancelling microphone — located on the back of the phone — our own speech came over loud and clear, even when we were outdoors.
Should I buy the Xiaomi Mi4?When we reviewed the Mi3, we commented that it was very much a Chinese phone aimed at a Chinese audience, and despite Xiaomi's desire to break into the international market, the same is true of the Mi4.
While it's possible to install the full suite of Google applications and get the phone performing how you want it to, there's always the trace of Chinese text here and there that reminds you that you're using a device which wasn't intended to set foot outside of its homeland.
Once you overcome such niggles, however, you're rewarded with a very appealing and desirable handset. The build quality is exceptional for an Android device, and despite the lack of creature comforts such as NFC, 4G and expandable storage, the spec list places this at the very pinnacle of the tech hill.
A Snapdragon 801 chipset, 3GB of RAM and a fantastic display all combine to make for a truly alluring slab of mobile brilliance — and all being sold for a price tag that is sure to make jaws hit the ground. If you’re up for challenge of importing and customising it, the Mi4 is one to seriously consider.
VerdictThe Mi4 is undoubtedly the best thing to come out of Xiaomi's Chinese factory so far, and offers cutting-edge power, an eye-catching, iPhone-like design and an excellent custom version of the Android OS. However, for buyers outside of China, it's something of a hard sell, despite the £200 price point.
Next, read our best cheap phones round-up