BARCELONA—You might not have heard of Xiaomi, or used any of its products before. And even if you have, you might be wondering why one of China’s largest smartphone makers—which historically hasn’t sold to the US and Europe—is here at MWC to talk about its new flagship smartphone, the Mi 5. The answer, it seems, isn’t to launch a dramatic assault on the Western market in the same way Huawei has, but rather to warn the likes of Apple and Samsung that Xiaomi is coming , and people are going to love it.
In a surprisingly slick, if odd press conference—VP Hugo Barra glided through the room on one of Xiaomi’s own Ninebot mini scooters—the company pitted its new Android-based Mi 5 phone against the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S7 and iPhone 6S. And on paper at least, Apple and Samsung have plenty to worry about. The Mi 5 sports the latest Snapdragon 820 SoC running at 2.2GHz, a 5.15-inch 1080p edge-to-edge display, up to 4GB of LPDDR4 RAM, up to 128GB of UFS 2.0 storage, a 16MP f/2.0 camera with 4-axis OIS (a first, it claims), NFC, a fingerprint scanner, 3000mAh battery, and a gorgeous metal and glass (or ceramic) body.
The price for that little lot? An impressive 2,600 yuan ($398, €361) for the high-end 128GB model with a ceramic body, and 1,999 yuan ($306, €277) for the entry-level version with 3GB of RAM and 32GB of storage. A 64GB version will also be available. All will have black, gold, and white colour options, and all will ship with Android 6.0 running Xiaomi’s MIUI 7 interface. The phones will be sold direct from Xiaomi’s website in China on March 1, making the Mi 5 one of the first commercially available phones with Qualcomm’s latest SoC.
But perhaps the most impressive thing about the Mi 5 isn’t its price, but rather the level of build quality that Xiaomi has achieved. This thing looks great, and is light and comfortable to hold, coming in at just 129g for the glass version. All the metal edges have a soft, rounded feel to them, while the curve on the back of the phone makes it easier to grip. Given the tendency for glass to be very slippery and very breakable, this is welcome, although I’d hoped most smartphone makers would have stopped using glass on the back of their phones by now due to its fragility. The ceramic version should be a little tougher, though.
The Mi 5 clocks in at roughly the same dimensions as the iPhone 6S—it’s a wee bit thicker at 7.25mm—yet it manages to cram in a larger 5.15-inch display and 3000mAh battery with a 685Wh/L density, one of the highest in the industry Xiaomi claims. The camera module is even completely flush with body—take that, Apple. Speaking of the camera, which is typically a weak point on cheaper phones, Xiaomi’s crammed in a 16MP Sony IMX298 module with f/2.0 aperture and sapphire glass lens that features 4K video recording, phase detection auto focus, Deep Trench Isolation (said to prevent light leakage between pixels), and 4-axis optical image stabilisation that counters both rotational and transversal movement.
Hopefully Xiaomi’s software can live up the potential of the hardware, but the test shots the company showed during its presentation looked sharp, while a video that demonstrated the Mi 5’s OIS versus the iPhone 6S suitably showed up the iPhone. Unfortunately, the mad scrum at the Xiaomi press conference (you probably need more than 10 phones next time, guys!) meant I wasn’t able to properly test out the camera, but at the very least I can say it focused quickly, and without any discernible shutter lag. On the front there’s a 4MP selfie cam that features big pixels to capture more light, similar to HTC’s Ultrapixel sensor on the M9 and A9.
Xiaomi also went into a surprising amount of depth regarding storage, boasting that the Mi 5 features much faster LPDDR4 memory, as well as UFS (universal flash storage) 2.0 flash, which it claims is 87 percent faster than the eMMC typically used in phones. UFS 2.0 was first used in Samsung’s Galaxy S6 exclusively, although with the likes of SK Hynix now making it too, other phone manufacturers have started to adopt it. It’s impressive to see it being used in a phone as cheap as the Mi 5, though.
The display is perhaps the least remarkable part of the Mi 5, coming in at just 1080p, but the edge-to-edge design does look good, and it helps keep the phone’s dimensions down. The display is nice and bright too, up to 600 nits, and Xiaomi’s worked in some hardware trickery to dynamically adjust the contrast when the phone is used in bright sunlight, which makes makes dark parts of an image lighter without affecting lighter parts.
No doubt about it, the Mi 5 is an impressive phone. The build quality is excellent—I especially like the clicky feel of the home button/fingerprint reader—while the features Xiaomi has piled in for the price are remarkable. Granted, Xiaomi’s MIUI 7 interface won’t be everyone’s cup of tea—it’s very similar to Huawei’s painful “Emotion” UI—and there’s also the question of how good the company’s long-term software support is. It does say that it has 750-strong team working on software, with updates coming in weekly, although without having had a Xiaomi phone to test in the past, we’ll just have to take its word for it for now.
That also brings me neatly onto the biggest issue with the Mi 5. Despite unveiling the phone here at MWC, Xiaomi was surprisingly vague about whether phone would come to Europe or the US. It mentioned China, and then it mentioned India. Europe got a vague maybe, and as for those in US, well, it looks like you’re out of luck. Xiaomi’s direct sales model, which is similar to that of OnePlus, means it sells its phones directly from its website in limited numbers to customers at near-cost price, and right now, it simply doesn’t offer an easy way for US buyers to pick up a phone.
But I suspect that’ll change soon, if not with the Mi 5, then with its next flagship. This year’s MWC was a chance for Xiaomi to test the waters, to see if people in the Western world might want to join the 70 million others who bought a Xiaomi device last year. I think they will, and I think they’ll eventually ditch their Samungs and their LGs to do it. Nine out of ten most active Android users in China use a Xiaomi phone. Give it a few years, and I could see the same happening in the West too.
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