Even the most dedicated of Android fans might not have heard of Xiaomi (pronounced show-me) until it was announced that Hugo Barra, a key figure in Android at Google, was leaving the company to join Xiaomi as head of international expansion. The hire was a statement of intent – the likes of Samsung and LG should perhaps take notice of this Chinese company that is selling millions of devices in their home country.
There are two particularly interesting facets to Xiaomi’s phone business. The first is that they don’t just make flagship devices like the Mi4 we are looking at here – they also make a number of lower spec devices that sell at extremely low prices. They typically sell out very fast indeed in China and other emerging markets that Xiaomi distribute in such as India. The second is that although the Xiaomi phones are Android devices, they don’t run a normal version of Android with Google apps, they run a customised version called MIUI, which although based on AOSP, has a completely different set of apps and look and feel.
What we have here is the new pinnacle of the range, the new flagship, the Mi4. It might be cheap at CN¥1,999 (~£200) for the 16GB version, but it certainly does not skimp on specs – it’s up there with the very best of them, packing a top spec Qualcomm 801 2.5GHz CPU, 3GB RAM, 5” IPS screen, AC WiFi, Bluetooth 4.0, dual high resolution cameras… you’re left wanting for little. It’s fair to say that on some Chinese devices in the past when the specs are high you’ve paid the price in build quality, but again, that couldn’t be further from the truth on the Mi4. The edge of the device is machined from stainless steel in the style of the Galaxy Alpha, contributing to a feel in the hand that is even better than Samsung’s latest effort.
MIUI, Xiaomi’s take on Android, has taken a fair bit of criticism for being ‘inspired’ by the design of iOS and really, some of the criticism is justified, MIUI6 does feel at points very similar in design to iOS 7. To call it a copy though doesn’t do it justice and it misses out on the fact that MIUI is actually very good. MIUI provides all the base features of Android KitKat AOSP, enhanced with custom apps for permissions, security, updating, root access and much more. Despite first appearing as a ‘dumbed down’ take on Android, the opposite is actually true.
The Mi4 ships with MIUI 5 out of the box, which is the current stable release. MIUI 6 is currently under development however, and is downloadable to flash should you wish to try it out. We have been running it for a while with no problems, which is impressive in itself.
We mentioned that MIUI devices ship without Google services installed… how much of a problem is this? In theory – huge, in reality – it isn’t at all. The Xiaomi app store (‘Mi Market’), includes a freely downloadable app that installs the Google Services and the Play Store. Quick and easy, if somewhat legally dubious.
If you want a Mi4 today, you’ll need to import it personally, so it’s very much a niche choice, until such time as Xiaomi are ready for a real European presence. But if you do so, the experience is very rewarding. Top class hardware, unusual but enjoyable software (with weekly updates of the developer ROM for the hackers amongst us) and a thriving community of users.
It’s not easy to find negatives about the device except around potential warranty issues should something go wrong (you’d likely have to return the device to China). If you’re not sure that the MIUI Android experience is for you, you can likely find a MIUI 5 ROM for your existing device to get a taster for the OS.
For further reviews on the latest Android devices, make sure to check out the latest issue of Android Magazine.