“Mi 4 International”. That was the tagline Xiaomi chose for its latest smartphone, the Mi 4i. The first Xiaomi smartphone developed from the ground up for the international market, the Mi 4i has also got a lot riding on it – is this the smartphone that Xiaomi wants the world to associate it with?
DESIGN & FIRST IMPRESSIONS
Ergonomically and aesthetically, the Mi 4i is fantastic. The size and weight are just right, the shape is perfect for one hand yet big enough for comfortable use with both hands. The back cover has a matte finish that provides good grip. It’s really hard to find any fault with the external build of the device.
It’s been said that the Mi 4i was a project that was developed from the ground up by Xiaomi’s global VP, Hugo Barra. In many ways, it is a representation of the ex-Google exec in what he wants in a smartphone: perfectly balanced, elegant, minimalist. The Mi 4i does not have any standout design features, but the little things really leave an impression.
Underneath the matte plastic back cover is a magnesium alloy frame, adding strength and rigidity for a firmer feel. The back cover itself has a coating that makes it grease and fingerprint resistant. This same coating even lets you rub off marker pen scribbles, if the situation ever arises. That’s the idea behind the Mi 4i’s design: everything appears to be carefully considered. The little stubble below the speaker grille is another example: it prevents the phone from lying flush and muffling the audio output.
Comparisons will also naturally be made between the Mi 4i and the Mi 3, its immediate predecessor. The Mi 3 was the first Xiaomi smartphone to arrive in Malaysia, shocking the nation’s consumers with what RM789 can amount to in a smartphone. It left a legacy that many Chinese competitors have since attempted to replicate, and it’s a challenge the Mi 4i must bear. While the competition have resorted to glossy glass backs, metal frames and other premium materials, Xiaomi has proven that you don’t need fancy materials to make a good-looking smartphone.
The Mi 4i packs a second-generation Qualcomm Snapdragon 615 chipset, which it worked alongside Qualcomm India to produce. The visible difference here is in the higher clock speeds of its “performance” and “power-efficient” cores: 1.7GHz from 1.5GHz and 1.1 GHz from 1.0GHz respectively. While the 0.1GHz bump doesn’t seem like much (1.1GHz vs 1.0GHz), it supposedly adds up to quite a lot in real world usage. The cores themselves are similar Cortex-A53 ARM cores, with different clock speeds. On normal usage, the 1.1GHz cores are used, but for more intensive usage, the chip engages the more powerful 1.7GHz quad-core cluster.
The choice of a Snapdragon 615 chip is quite an interesting one. The Mi 3 used a high-end Snapdragon 800 SoC, while the Snapdragon 615 is widely regarded as an upper mid-range chip. Where the Snapdragon 800 used four high-performance cores, the 615 opts for eight Cortex-A53 cores, which are better suited for power efficiency. As you’ll read later on, the immediate consequence is in a less than satisfactory software experience.
On the other hand, at a retail price of RM749, the Mi 4i is yet another surprisingly feature packed device from Xiaomi. Few smartphones at this price range offer a Full HD IPS display, 2GB of RAM and a generous 3,140mAh battery – but with only 16GB of non-expandable storage. In fact, a testament to the Mi 4i’s frugal pricing is by looking at the competition: there are plenty of Snapdragon 615- equipped smartphones available today in Malaysia, but the Mi 4i is one of only three other devices that is priced below RM1,000; the other two, the Sony Xperia M4 Aqua and the ZTE Blade S6, both feature only 720p displays.
The Mi 4i is one of only a few Xiaomi smartphones that run on MIUI 6 based on Android 5.0 Lollipop. If the exterior and general aesthetics of the Mi 4i can be described as a very positive one, the same cannot be said of the software experience in my time using the Mi 4i. I’ve had the privilege to be able to use virtually every flagship smartphone running on Android in the past year or two, and here’s the deal: the Mi 4i is simply not a flagship smartphone. Not with this sort of software experience.
The second-generation Qualcomm Snapdragon 615 octa-core chipset appears to be unable to cope with MIUI. There is persistent lag in virtually every app I use on a daily basis. “Thinking pauses”, as I’d like to call them, mercilessly turned into white or black screens for seconds at a time as the hardware struggled to switch between apps. These aren’t graphically intensive games, either. Chrome was the root of a lot of frustration as innocent websites took longer than usual to respond to scrolling gestures. Instagram occasionally couldn’t keep up with my swipes. Facebook made me like status updates I didn’t want to. And in moments like these, you can really get the phone to freak out together with you: pressing Home, dragging down the notification shade, or even continuing to type on the keyboard if you were stuck in a messaging app…wait several seconds and see the phone eventually keep up. That being said, sometimes that resulted in the phone giving up and rebooting itself.
MIUI has a “Performance Mode”, which presumably engages the processor to run on full power the entire time. While running on Performance Mode the whole day resulted in about 2 hours or so less battery life, I did notice that the experience of using the device purely in this mode was slightly better than on Balanced Mode. Chrome is still a resource hog no matter which phone you use, but other apps behaved better. You will have to contend with the device feeling warmer than usual, though not to the point where it is hot to the touch.
In truth, there is a suspicion that the software isn’t entirely to blame. Instead, some questions should be raised at the decision to use the Snapdragon 615 chipset in the first place. It is a 2015 example of why the number of cores in a processor simply does not matter. The eight cores in the chipset are all based on Cortex-A53, the successor to the old Cortex-A7 core which is designed to prioritise power efficiency over raw performance. And, using ARM’s big.LITTLE architecture, usually only a cluster of four cores are in use at any given time: either four power-sipping 1.1GHz cores for daily tasks, or four slightly overclocked 1.7GHz cores for when you need a little more – not all apps are optimised to use all eight cores. Either way, there’s an overwhelming feeling that the Mi 4i is running on eight lawnmower engines chugging along instead of a proper performance-tuned one.
To prove this, I booted up the Mi 4 and updated it to the latest version of MIUI 6 available for the device (update 184.108.40.206 but based on Android 4.4.4). Once that was done, I begun doing the same things I did on the Mi 4i on a daily basis: lock essential social apps (Facebook Messenger, Gmail) and browsed through websites, opening links via the Plume Twitter client, moving back and forth between multiple apps. The Snapdragon 801, with its four high-performance Krait cores, barely broke a sweat.
And that’s where it’s really disappointing. While Lollipop has its fair share of issues that undoubtedly made things worse on the Mi 4i – Samsung Galaxy S6 users will be well aware of Lollipop’s crazy memory management, for example – the Mi 4i just feels consistently underpowered. There’s an underlying feeling that Xiaomi has somewhat oversold the Mi 4i as a flagship device.
With a large 3,120mAh battery, the Mi 4i packs one of the largest battery packs on a smartphone in its class. Perhaps it is a surprise then that the Mi 4i has a rather average battery life. Of course, that still means your device will last from morning till late night on a working day on Balanced Mode, but you’ll need to plug it in before you sleep – occasionally there’s a surprising amount of battery drain during the course of the night.
On Performance Mode, the Mi 4i is still quite capable of lasting the day – I managed to use it for about 13 hours, so you’ll still be able to eke out enough juice over the course of the day.
What’s more worrying for Xiaomi has to be the software once again. A recent major update for MIUI 6 on the Mi 4i (update 220.127.116.11) caused a bug that I’ve never seen before on a smartphone. It seems to be easily replicated too: charge your device to 100% and leave it plugged in for some time, and you won’t be able to charge it again later when the battery’s run down. You’ll only be able to charge the device after rebooting.
Encountering odd bugs like these is yet another example of the software issues that plague the Mi 4i. Of course, a fix duly arrived less than two weeks later (update 18.104.22.168), but these bugs really shouldn’t be here to begin with.
The display, on the other hand, is exceptionally good. Not many smartphones in this price range offer a Full HD IPS panel like on the Mi 4i, and it shows – the 5-inch display has accurate colours, great viewing angles and really just works as expected. You can also tweak the contrast and colour reproduction if you wish to. Oddly though, you can’t choose when the screen times out.
The Mi 4i also boasts a technology called Sunlight Display, a feature that you’ll likely not even know is there. When the ambient sensor detects that the user is using the device under bright light, such as under the sun, darker areas of the screen will appear brighter for better colour accuracy under the current lighting conditions. It’s a really cool feature to see when it is demonstrated indoors, but one that can really only be appreciated in those few moments you actually use the phone under the hot sun.
Located at the back of the device, the Mi 4i’s speaker is decent, and at mid-volume levels the audio output is pretty good. The little plastic “stubble” below the speaker grille also prevents the phone from lying flush, thus somewhat preserving the output. That said, it isn’t the loudest mono speaker around, though it is more than sufficient for most users.
Using Sony’s popular IMX 214 13MP sensor, the Mi 4i is a pretty capable shooter for its price. All of the camera features you can find on more expensive Xiaomi models can be found here. There’s Live HDR, Beautify on the front camera, HHT (Hand Held Twilight for night time shots), Refocus and of course a Manual mode. It does not, however, come with optical image stabilisation. Generally, the Mi 4i performs well in bright daylight conditions (which is a must in this day and age), and the front camera is surprisingly capable as well. That said, while images produced aren’t as saturated as, say, on the Samsung Galaxy S6, colours are flatter than in real life, causing images to look less pleasant than they should.
There are other aspects where the camera app comes up short. Quick Launch mode, which allows you to quickly open the camera app with a swipe from the lock screen, takes about two to three seconds to fully load. On more than one occasion did I miss shots simply because I was waiting for the camera to load. On top of that, low light performance on the Mi 4i isn’t great, but perhaps expected at this price point.
Personally, my biggest gripe lies with the UI itself. While it is perfectly normal to have the shutter, video and Gallery buttons on the right side of the UI, what throws me off is the fact that the area underneath these buttons is slightly darkened. Plus, there’s a single vertical line that separates these three buttons and the indicators for flash, HDR and the front/rear camera toggle. Both of these factors give the impression that the viewfinder starts after the darkened area and vertical line…when it does not. Oftentimes, this resulted in pictures with skewed framing; they were biased to the left too much as I tried to compensate for the UI. Xiaomi’s not the only one to design its camera UI this way either: Huawei (and Honor) as well as Vivo all feature a similar iOS-style camera UI.
One important thing to note: my previous device immediately before switching to the Mi 4i was the Samsung Galaxy S6. It had a camera that was miles better, and I was spoilt by its always-on feature – a double tap of the home button took you to the camera app within 0.7 seconds. Sure, there were moments when it took slightly longer, but the S6 was, by far, the best smartphone camera I’ve used. The S6 is also more than three times the price of a Mi 4i (though these days you can get it for less than RM2,000). Hence, I’ll let the photos shot with the Mi 4i speak for themselves.
Auto mode, HDR
Early on, I mentioned how the Mi 4i had a completely different competitive landscape compared to its predecessor. The Mi 3 was virtually unchallenged despite entering Malaysia almost a year after being launched in China. Today, it is a different story: other Chinese companies have mimicked Xiaomi’s business model and have begun expanding into international markets, including Malaysia. As such, the Mi 4i faces a whole new challenge: supremely competitive alternatives that could even offer better value for money.
Take, for example, the Honor 6. For RM150 more you get an excellent – though previous-gen – smartphone with flagship specs: 5-inch Full HD IPS display, Kirin 920 chipset with 3GB of RAM, and a 13MP rear camera that’s pretty capable too. The only downside is that it still runs on EMUI 2.3, based on Android 4.4 KitKat (though you can sign up to be a beta tester for EMUI 3.1, which is based on Android 5.1).
Speaking of previous generation devices, there’s also the Asus Padfone S. With a lower-clocked Snapdragon 801 chip, 2GB RAM and 13MP rear camera, this is another compelling alternative if you don’t mind using an older model – it’s now going for just RM777 at DirectD. That said, for RM899 there’s the newer Padfone S Plus, which features 3GB of RAM and 64GB of storage.
On the other hand, if you’ve got a few hundred ringgit more to spare, there’s always the Mi 4 and the OnePlus One. Both feature a Snapdragon 801 chip paired with 3GB of RAM and offer a similar Sony IMX 214 13MP rear camera (though with better lenses). The Mi 4 has a similar 5-inch screen size and resolution, while the One sports a larger 5.5-inch Full HD display. Both are officially available in Malaysia for RM1,199 – though I’m sure you can find places which are selling local units for around the RM1,000 mark.
Finally, there’s also a new entry from Meizu. The M2 Note packs a 5.5-inch Full HD IPS IZGO display, and is powered by a MediaTek MT6753 chip with 2GB of RAM, 3,100mAh battery as well as 13MP and 5MP rear and front cameras. While it will retail for RM799, Lazada will be offering it for RM699 for the next two weeks from 23 July. Its flagship MX4 (MT6595 + 2GB RAM, 20.7MP Sony rear camera, 5.36-inch 1920 x 1152 JDI display, TDD-LTE & FDD-LTE support) is going for RM999.
It’s funny what anticipation can do. Sequels of an excellent movie always disappoint simply because we expect to be similarly blown away just like how we did the first time. Oftentimes, that is due to a combination of unrealistic expectation and the time between two products.
With the Mi 4i, it was never going to be easy for Xiaomi. Rival companies upped their games, producing quality devices at knockout prices – you know, just like what Xiaomi does. Combine that with the hype the company built up for this first “international” smartphone and chances are, you may never satiate the desire of fans who constantly demand more.
That’s not to say that the Mi 4i isn’t a good product. Every time I came across an issue, whether it was the sluggish performance or middling camera output, I needed to remind myself that this was a device that’s a third the price of an iPhone 6 or a Galaxy S6, and that I needed to temper my expectations. For RM749, it sort of made sense to experience what I did.
So it really doesn’t help that Xiaomi hailed this as a flagship device. The company essentially heaped more pressure on what was already an unrealistic expectation for the Mi 4i. This is no Ferrari, as its code name suggests, but rather something more akin to a Satria Neo R3. It certainly is a good car, but it’d be unwise to claim it as a purebred.