Smartphone designs today are beginning to be very predictable. After all, how much different can your rectangular slab be? As it turns out, quite a bit still, as Xiaomi showed earlier with its “concept” phone, the Mi Mix.
It’s odd that Xiaomi would call a device it intends to sell next week as a “concept device”. It’s fairly understood in the automotive world that a concept car is something you’ll never see on a road – ever – but traces of its influence trickle down into consumer cars.
Xiaomi’s train of thought is rather different. According to Hugo Barra, the company’s VP of global operations, Xiaomi went with the concept device branding simply because of how advanced and far ahead the device was compared to anything we’ve seen yet.
But we’ve seen these bezel-free type of smartphones before, so what’s different? Referring to Sharp’s sexy Aquos Crystal smartphone in 2014 and a more recent concept by the Japanese company from earlier this month, Barra noted that the phones have an elongated “chin”, where the usual sensors at the top were repositioned.
The real beauty in the Mi Mix lies underneath. Xiaomi has actually done away with the receiver/earpiece speaker as well as the proximity sensor at the top, and moved the front facing camera to the bottom bezel. The removal of what’s previously seen as essential items on a smartphone required some technologically advanced substitutions – and enabled the Mi Mix to sport an astonishing 91.3% screen-to-body ratio, the highest on any smartphone today.
First, the receiver. Xiaomi has introduced an industry-first “cantilever piezoelectric ceramic acoustic technology” underneath the display. Essentially, the piezoelectric speaker is located underneath the display, and generates sound via the phone’s frame, negating the need for an earpiece.
Meanwhile, the infrared proximity sensor has been replaced by an ultrasonic one, using the same principle as what we saw earlier this year in Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Sense ID fingerprint sensing technology. Ultrasonic waves pierce through glass, metal, and even plastic, allowing the module to be placed beneath a display. The ultrasonic waves coupled with algorithms to detect distance allows for an advanced proximity sensor that doesn’t take up physical space in the bezels.
Finally, the front camera has not only been repositioned, the entire 5MP module has been shrunk by 50%, allowing it to fit into the bottom right side. It is definitely an awkward angle, but Xiaomi’s solution to that is decidedly low tech: turn the phone upside down, and the camera UI adjusts accordingly.
The Mi Mix’s chassis and exterior is fully made from ceramic, a material that’s second only to diamonds in terms of hardness and scratch resistance. That’s perhaps the reason why Xiaomi opted for a Jet Black colour that’s exceptionally glossy – though admittedly, the “Pro” version (which features 6GB of RAM and 256GB of storage) which adds 18K gold accents around the fingerprint sensor and camera module looks especially cool. The rear branding (again different from usual Mi phones) are clad in gold as well. It’s classy, and really high maintenance because of the smudges it catches.
Xiaomi wanted a futuristic phone that immerses the user with the display, but I must question the decision to go with a massive 6.4-inch 17:9 display on the Mi Mix. Yes, I’m aware of the fact that Asians prefer larger-screened phones (including myself), but the space saved from the lack of bezels is negated by the unwieldy display size.
Imagine having a 5.7-inch bezel-free display that shrinks into a chassis made for a 4.3-inch phone. All the benefits of a large display, in a pocket-friendly and ergonomic shape. Laptops like the Dell XPS 13 (with its own InfinityEdge display tech) show that there are plenty of advantages to this, and I wonder why Xiaomi did not go in the same direction.
As a result, the Mi Mix feels rather disappointing ergonomically. The squarish sides can be uncomfortable to hold due to the width of the phone, which unfortunately was further accentuated by the slim Mi Note 2 that were on the same table at the experience zone.
That said, do not discount the fact that this will be a blueprint of sorts for smartphone designs of the future. There is a lot of tech that goes unnoticed underneath to make something like the Mi Mix a reality. And let’s also not forget that this is actually a working device that goes on sale in a week’s time; this phone is right up there with the best of today’s flagships with its hardware set.
Across the industry, the generally-accepted idea for the future of smartphones is one which has an all-screen front. Xiaomi’s already 91.3% there.